If you find yourself in New York City this winter — and you’re in no mood to mingle with the crowd in front of Trump Tower — you might consider spending a leisurely afternoon in the Hall of Minerals at the American Museum of Natural History.
Part of what gives the Museum of Natural History not only its acclaimed status as one of the country’s most important museums, but also in New York City childhood lore, is that large parts of the museum manage to feel like forgotten back rooms, filled with dated cabinets found down low-lit hallways. There are dark passages organized around maps of deciduous tree life, marine mammals, jellyfish illustrations, and inscrutable prehistoric masks. It is possible, in a matter of minutes, to pass from an exhibit detailing Invertebrate Zoology to one questioning whether dinosaurs had feathers. The Museum lacks an open floor plan, so to pass through each successive exhibit is to feel as if you have discovered it.
The Harry Frank Guggenheim Hall of Minerals is a darkly jeweled and carpeted quadrant of the Museum, located next to the Ross Hall of Meteorites and the Morgan Memorial Hall of Gems. The minerals are organized into two circular displays, so that visitors can orbit around illuminated cases of azurite and crystallized gold. Large rocks are displayed on stone podiums or framed in a series of dividing walls. The whole effect is very Seventies, but it makes sense: The geometric trappings of 1970s architecture are most at home when framing giant purple crystals. When I visited, the rooms were packed with school kids running their hands over variously sized geodes.
I love the Hall of Minerals. It may not have the drama and grandeur of the Milstein Hall of Ocean Life, with its giant suspended whale and sea lion dioramas, but the Hall of Minerals has podiums full of fluorescent rocks. A visit to the rock room can make you feel far removed from time, and not just because there are no windows. It’s because … well, there’s just something about looking at glowing crystals in the dark. It tickles ancient parts of the brain. (A note: If you want to read the best book on rocks ever written, get a copy of John McPhee’s Annals of the Former World. The book is 696 pages of American geology, a topic McPhee manages to make gripping. It will certainly teach you things about the sedimentary layer that you never knew you wanted to know.)
My visit to the Hall of Minerals got me thinking about fluorescence, which got me thinking about phosphorescence in rocks. A small amount of minerals produce light organically — or, rather, they retain light for longer. Google defines phosphorescence as “the emission of radiation in a similar manner to fluorescence but on a longer timescale, so that emission continues after excitation ceases.” (Fluorescence = fairly glowy. Phosphorescence = really glowy.) The study of excited phosphorescent minerals led to the discovery of radioactivity mid-century, an event I imagine happening in a dark and well-cataloged room not unlike those of the Museum of Natural History.
I am sure poets have waxed poetic for ages about the strangeness of glowing rocks. When I was in the Hall of Minerals, however, I thought of a Carolyn Forche poem called “Nocturne.” It’s not about barium carbonate, but it is about human perception of objects at night. Writes Forche, “Look! whole villages intact and shimmering. The very body itself begins to evanesce / it has no true boundary. Death changes it as a mirror changes a face.”
Standing amid the age-old rocks in the far reaches of an august museum, I knew what she meant. I felt invisible, and not in a bad way. It’s just that there was something slightly collapsed about the boundaries of the world. I felt as if I was not in New York in the winter of 2016 but on a removed timeline. Remembering Forche, I wondered if the part of the mind that is triggered looking at objects that glow in the dark is the same that is vaguely aware of what happens to our bodies when we die. Maybe we become more aware of ourselves as constantly transforming.
Whatever it is, there’s nothing straightforward about a visit to a science museum, despite carefully articulated plaques and glossy handouts. Which is why, by my lights, the older and stranger the museum the better. You need to be able to get lost. It’s best when our pretensions that we can order the chaos are left to collect dust, lit with yellowing bulbs, and decorated with glowing rocks.
A native Memphian, Eileen Townsend was until recently an associate editor of Memphis magazine. She is now a student at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.