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Geoheritage in 10,000 Mineral Specimens

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Colorful specimens on display at the Mineral Museum.
Courtesy of Matt Zimmerer
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A giant, touch-friendly quartz mineral specimen greets visitors as they enter the museum.
Courtesy of Matt Zimmerer

Socorro, NM
— February 10, 2021

Geoheritage sites come in many flavors. Some may be surprised to learn the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources houses a geoheritage site within its building.

Geoheritage, an abbreviation of the words geologic heritage, is the practice of recognizing and conserving unique geologic locations with significant scientific, cultural, aesthetic, educational, and economic value. These special locations weave together geologic history and human history.

When we think of these important sites, what often comes to mind are the largest, most talked-about examples, like Grand Canyon National Park or Yellowstone National Park. But geoheritage sites come in all shapes and sizes, and are protected by numerous international, national, state, and local-level policies. A geoheritage site might be a UNESCO World Heritage Site, like Chaco Culture National Historical Park, or it might be a state park, like Rockhound State Park. Many historic mining geoheritage sites in New Mexico are on private land. And many geoheritage sites actually consist of museum collections that preserve unique rock and fossil specimens.

The Mineral Museum at the New Mexico Bureau of Geology contains one of the finest collections of mineral specimens in the world. The samples, whose histories span both time and space, embody the diversity of the mineral world as well as the legacy of mineral collecting.

“You couldn’t do this anymore,” said Museum Director and State Mineralogist Dr. Virgil Lueth. “The fact that the museum and the collection has existed since approximately 1935 to 1938...That’s a long time.”

The specimens are aesthetically interesting, consisting of myriad forms and colors. But their history is also fascinating: where do they come from, who collected them, how many hands have they passed through on their way to their current display case?

“Some of [the specimens] I like more because of the stories behind them, with them…There’s so much history in many of these pieces, and different layers of history,” explained Lueth. “Some of it has to do with the period of time in which they were being mined and what that meant to the development of New Mexico. But later on it changes to how many different hands they passed through. And sometimes it’s even funny how we acquired things.”

When the territorial legislature established the New Mexico School of Mines in 1889 to train students in mining and agriculture-related fields, such as mineralogy, geology, chemistry and math, the school’s charter required the governing board of directors to develop mineral and specimen cabinets for education. The original collection began around 1898 as several hundred specimens.

This initial mineral cabinet expanded and diversified to the point where the collection displayed at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri took home both gold and silver medal prizes. Then, in a fast moving disaster on July 5, 1928, the building housing the collection burned down. The original collection, and records of it, were lost, medals included.

The mineral cabinet was re-established following the fire and began the arduous process of replacing what had been a nationally recognized award winning collection.

The rebuilding process may have started slowly, but today almost 100 years later, the Mineral Museum houses over 10,000 cataloged specimens and welcomes 10-15,000 visitors in a normal year to its dedicated space at the New Mexico Bureau of Geology’s Headen Center.

Today’s displays focus not only on the inherent natural beauty of minerals, but on their structure, chemistry, and formation. The modern museum shows the breadth of the mineral world, not just the most “beautiful” mineral specimens.

This diversity has led to international recognition, the same kind of international recognition afforded to the lost original collection. One year, the Mineral Museum was invited to put up an exhibit in Hamburg, Germany as part of a joint U.S. mineral exhibit with Harvard University, the Colorado School of Mines, and the Smithsonian Institute. This clearly demonstrates the Mineral Museum’s global regard.

At the museum, people can view minerals from different mining districts in New Mexico and regions of the world. The public can also bring in rocks and minerals they personally collected for identification by Lueth and Museum Curator Kelsey McNamara.

“I think that the museum brings people to Socorro that probably might never even stop here,” said McNamara. “It’s good for [New Mexico Tech] campus, it’s good for the town, and it’s a nice place to stop and stretch your legs…It’s a hidden treasure, a gem of a museum.”

The Mineral Museum is a working museum, and has many stored samples not on display that can be accessed for teaching or research. Even the specimens on display can be sampled by scientists for analysis, or photographed.

Students and school groups also visit the Mineral Museum for field trips. Classes will do scavenger hunts based on their grade level. Then they might go to a classroom above the museum where they can learn about how minerals are used in everyday products, participate in mineral demonstrations, like using a piece of glass called a scratch plate to test mineral hardness, and study the difference between body fossils and trace fossils.

Today, the Mineral Museum continues to evolve and expand, acquiring more specimens and diversifying displays to include mining artifacts and items tied to the human history of mineral collection.

“Not everyone likes the minerals or the rocks, so if we can diversify the displays a bit to make them broader, then more people enjoy the experience. I’ve heard that from a number of visitors who say, ‘I don’t care about these rocks, but those old mining things are really cool, or those fossils are really neat,’” said Lueth. “That’s kind of our next plan is to try to deliver a bit more historical humanities-type concepts in the collection that people can interact with.

Please note that due to COVID-19, the Mineral Museum is currently closed and will re-open as soon as possible.