Unlocking the Collections

getting comfortable with next-level access to museum minerals

A museum mineral collection is a vast repository of Earth and planetary materials. It is a resource for researchers looking to gain access to the rarest minerals and gems, and those that are looking for intricate details in species variation. Some researchers need access to common minerals, but don’t have the means to acquire specimens themselves. More importantly, in my opinion, a museum mineral collection can be used to inspire wonder to our visitors, inform the public of current issues in a safe and comfortable space, shape their world view if they trust us, or just allow them to appreciate Nature’s creations. The collections need to be accessible at all levels.

A researcher accessing parts of the mineral collection at NHMLA. Our collection can be search at https://collections.nhm.org/mineral-sciences/
A visitor looks as if they want access to this part of the mineral collection. Note my ominous reflection in the glass, ugh 🙄 😆

Part One: The Researchers’ Needs

Standards. Right now, scientists use trusted standards to compare data collection and analysis techniques, as well as to calibrate their instruments. Having calibrated instruments using agreed-upon standards also gives confidence that the data obtained from their experiments will all be valid and comparable. The National Institute of Standards and Technology is an excellent place to go, but few people can afford to buy these standards. There are other places to go for materials, the Clay Mineral Society has a good set of clay standards, the United States Geological Survey has their own set of standards (e.g., rocks), and even university laboratories sell their internal standards to outside users. There are also some generally agreed upon standards that are not housed at any one institution, such as the forsterite from San Carlos Indian Reservation. In general, standards are expensive to buy, and they are in limited supply. In practice, there are not enough standards for every situation, and sometimes you just need the same material another researcher used in their past work so you can compare numbers.

An example of the diamond reference drawers at NHMLA. Each one of these small plastic boxes holds a single diamond of known origin.

So what is the hesitation?

Why are mineralogists not donating their studied, but no longer being used, specimens to museums?

This study can be used as a barometer as to why researchers do not share information, and why they might not share specimens with museums. It seems most researchers just don’t want to share. But why? Fear of contradictory analyses, competition among research groups, lack of organization of data-to-mineral, … ?
The home page of GBIF, global biodiversity information facility, has a pleasing and easily accessible format.
  • Donate characterized, but unpublished specimens. Do you have electron microprobe data, XRF, Raman, FTIR, ICP, XRD, or other? We can include that data in our database along with a photo. Plus, you can also write a short data report and publish it on a free pre-print server (like ChemRxiv, or Authorea which is my personal fav), so you have a DOI and people can reference your work.
  • Ask for materials to perform research on, and if published, submit the data to a repository or back to the museum.
  • Credit the museum for all work done on a museum object, this helps bring awareness to the museum’s strategic goals for making the collection accessible.
  • Apply to a museum collection fellowships/grants to help with travel costs.
  • Go to classes/workshops, and suggest other workshops.
  • Going on or leading local field trips, they can be fun!
  • Not sure what to do? Just email your favorite museum mineral curator to discuss options.

Part Two: Public Trust & Education

Museums are among the most trusted sources of information to the public. Just google “Do people trust museums?” and “Do people trust universities?” and you will see a stark contrast of results. People trust Google above all else, so you know these results speak the truth. Sarcasm aside, keeping that trust, and also bringing the collection to the public is constant work.

Typical First Fridays concert at NHMLA. Can you see me in the crowd? First Fridays has food, drinks, scientists, discussion panels, tours, concerts, and everything else to have fun and make people feel comfortable. All the while being as educational as possible.
The community is welcome at NHMLA panel discussions.
  • Credit the museum for all work done with museum data, this helps bring awareness to the museum’s strategic goals for making the collection accessible.
  • Rock and mineral club trips to the museum
  • Local field trips to collecting spots. Bring a curator along, they don’t know everything, and they like to learn too!
Typical type of donation we receive. This is representative material from the MacArthur Mine in Nevada. These minerals will be cataloged, photographed, and then immediately available for search on our database.

Keeping science accessible. Researching how minerals can be used to solve problems like climate change, pollution, and disease. @ NHMLA, USC, NASA-JPL