Monday Night at the Museum

When I was hired in 2012 to teach geology at St. Peter’s College in Muenster, Saskatchewan, I inherited their rock, mineral, and fossil collection. It consisted of several cardboard boxes filled with samples in Ziploc bags, most of which had labels.

I’ve never learned the identity of the mystery someone who assembled the collection. This is a shame, because it’s a remarkable collection and I have so many questions. Either the collector had a lot of geologist friends who hit myriad classic locales (there’s aragonite from Molina de Aragon, for goodness’ sake), or they were themselves extremely well travelled. I envision a sort of geological Indiana Jones, but ideally without the colonialism. Most likely Geo Indy was one of the monks at St. Peter’s Abbey.

I can hear the typewriter, see the yellow glow of a 1950s-era desk lamp that will still be in use 40 years later, and feel the neck strain.

My respect for Geo Indy only grew after finding a crystal of fluor-buergerite, a tourmaline-group mineral that was, for a time, known only from a single location in Mexico.  

After rummaging through samples for several weeks, I also discovered five different uranium minerals, cinnabar (yay, mercury!), and realgar (for your daily dose of arsenic). I started to pay special attention to where I set my coffee, and how thoroughly I washed my hands after playing in the minerals. I learned to expect the (very random) unexpected.

Oh. Wow. Huh. That’s…um…something.

Some of the minerals needed extra attention because they were fragile, and occasionally I had to prevent a hygroscopic mineral from happily slurping up atmospheric moisture and getting all powdery.

Slowly—very slowly—order emerged amongst the minerals. I looked up each to find its chemical formula and its Nickel-Strunz classification. I checked the name on the label against online images to verify that the label was correct. Some of the minerals have been renamed since they were first collected, or subsequently recognized as a mineral group rather than a single mineral, so I sorted out the synonyms and official names as well. (Based on this the collection is 1960s-ish at youngest. The oldest item with a date on its label was collected in 1868.) I made new colour-coded labels, and placed each sample in a plastic tray or a jar, depending on how much protecting it needed from the environment, and how much the environment needed protecting from it.

I wonder what Geo Indy would have thought of this.

Those specimens without labels, or with the wrong labels, had to be identified. Sometimes that was easy, but in other cases not so much. It took me several years and some close-up photography to finally decide that the bright green crust on an unidentified sample was the mineral of interest, not lichen, and then to connect it to an orphaned label for the uranium-bearing mineral andersonite. Fortunately, I hadn’t employed a taste test for purposes of mineral identification. (This a test we teach undergrad students—a for-real test, not a hazing-type “test.”)

Then in 2016, a student needed a place to store his rock collection to prevent it from being a victim of downsizing during a move. He was set up at the College with a room, table, and chair, and spent the remainder of the term diligently organizing his collection and identifying the rocks and minerals within it. Up to this point, the St. Peter’s collection didn’t have an official home, so this—finally—was my opportunity to do something more with it than cover every horizontal surface in my home office. I did not return the key for that room at the end of the term.

Now that I had a space, I began the long process of moving the collection in and displaying it in a way that would be beneficial to students. The first thing to do was get some shelves and display cases. The monks of St. Peter’s Abbey have decades worth of furniture stashed away, and they took me “shopping.”

I started with a plopping-things-on-shelves approach just to have items to look at should someone wander by, but my ultimate goal was to select particularly interesting specimens to display, and then provide just the right amount of information for visitors to understand why the specimens were interesting. The invertebrate fossil collection was the easiest place to start.

I made good use of my new USB microscope…

…a tube of kitchen and bath silicone, and some dollar-store picture frames.

After securing professional development funds from the St. Peter’s College Faculty Association, I upgraded to fancy plastic displays from Staples, and suspending samples from wires anchored by beads and E6000 glue. (That glue is amazing stuff.)

Some of my efforts required prolonged negotiations with gravity.

The displays I’ve built thus far only scratch the surface of what can be done to manage and show the collection, not to mention the things you can do with tools like augmented reality software. Ever wonder how the geological timescale maps onto a 24-hour clock?

Someone could be kept busy indefinitely, but it’s time to pass that task on to someone else. This is unpaid time-consuming work outside of the teaching I’m hired to do on short-term contracts, and I need to start allocating that time in a more sustainable way. There are no funds from the College for this task, so out-of-pocket costs are an issue. There’s also the matter of whether or not I get hired to teach again.

If the College were to support this project officially, whoever takes it on will need to change how it’s hosted. At the moment it’s squirreled away in a small out-of-the-way room, and not really on anyone’s radar. Moreover, the displays aren’t secured, so the space can’t be opened to students or the public except when someone is around to supervise. In the past, I was that someone for the duration of my office hours on Monday evenings.

The simplest way to make the collection available for viewing would be to hang lit locking glass-fronted cabinets on the wall in a frequently travelled area. Ideally, someone who likes to play in rocks and fossils and make pretty pictures would be hired to put it all together.

This is pretty much ready for a glass case. Just saying.

2 thoughts on “Monday Night at the Museum

  1. It saddens me to see that your passion, highly valued respect, care, and time consuming displaying of the specimens in your care, had not been valued or acknowledged. Wow, truly shameful.

    • It’s not ideal, but at the same time I’m happy I was able to stabilize and preserve the original collection. It was almost tossed out during renovations, and was saved by someone who understood what it was and realized its value. I think the fact that the individual pieces were kept with their labels is thanks to the work done by those folks.

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