Goodbye to the Gem Room

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The Hall of Gems after its 1976 opening. © AMNH Library

Many years ago, I brought an old boyfriend to the Hall of Gems and Minerals at the Natural History Museum. I’d told him all about it: how many hours of my childhood had been spent roaming the dun-carpeted halls under the flourescent lights, gazing at the geode cave and the rainbow of precious stones; occasionally sliding down that one irresistible slanted slab of petrified wood when the guard’s back was turned. I’d told him about how my best friend, Elaine, and I would beg to visit the dark little screening room where they showed a film called Forever Gold on a ten-minute loop, and how we’d watch it over and over and over, shrieking with laughter and shouting along with the dialogue.

I’m not sure why I loved the gem room. I never much cared about science, and jewelry has always left me cold. And yet, it felt like the friendliest and most reassuring place in the world. And that film! Years later, I could still remember the triumphant cries of the prospectors, and the bits of 1980s footage in which a scientist in a short-sleeved button-down demonstrated the incredible tensility of a sheet of gold leaf. At one point a reenactor, playing a Medieval merchant, bit down on a gold coin; this started us on several weeks of hilarious and unhygienic coin biting. The narrator—whom I would later realize was George Plimpton—explains at one point that if all the gold ever mined were made into a cube, a football game could still be played around it. This is still the one salient fact I know about football.

We liked other museums, and other rooms in that one—the Hall of Asian Peoples, the giant clamshell, the redwood trunk—but the gem room was always the last, and best, stop on our regular visits. It had a particular, slightly musty smell, and the fact that it was sort of hard to find, requiring a detour past a terrifying asteroid, only added to its allure. The gem room may not be as iconic as the museum’s blue whale, or as impressive as the Indian elephants or the sixty-three-foot Great Canoe in the main hall. But, with its combination of glamour and dowdiness, anarchy and order, it had, to me, always possessed a magic all its own.

I knew my boyfriend would be able to feel it; how could he fail to? We passed through the Hall of Man with its naked Neanderthals that made school groups giggle; we detoured around the huge, scary black asteroid (which is magnetic), and suddenly: there it was. The Hall of Gems and Minerals. Colors gleamed from the cases that lined the room, the piece of petrified wood glinted temptingly. There were kids; there were Italian tourists. I turned to him expectantly. I watched him take it all in.

“I don’t know,” he said after a while. “It looks kind of more like the … Hall of Nerds, to me.”

I was deeply wounded. But I couldn’t deny that, at that very moment, a pair of teenage nerds was passing a case of Elbaite and that the girl (in a cape) was earnestly explaining the magical properties of the mineral to her companion. “It’s a well-known demon deterrent,” she was saying.

Of course, we had been nerds, and I’d loved being a nerd. The lack of self-consciousness, the superiority, the complicity. New York was more of a nerd’s town back then, or at least felt like it: cheaper and weirder and crummier. Nerds—real nerds—are not associated with great wealth; we don’t thrive in shiny new places. We were creatures of libraries and thrift stores and were not strangers to the whiff of mildew. We gravitated toward safe spaces. Yes, we spent a lot of time at museums, but the museums were less geared to a kid’s interest; we had to find our fun where we could, like a nugget of gold in an Alaskan creek.

When I read, last week, that the Hall of Gems and Minerals was getting a major overhaul, it came as a punch to the gut. Sure, it had been a little down at the heels, with its Futura captions and buzzing halogens and sort of claustrophobic ceiling. But wasn’t that what everyone loved about it—its consistency? I immediately felt a sense of panic: What would happen to the petrified wood? The gem cave?

Of course, renovations are not always bad things; it’s easy to fall into the trap of fetishizing anything old in a city that changes as quickly and as often as New York. Presumably the new benefactors—Allison and Roberto Mignone—love the Gem Hall at least as much as the rest of us. They’d probably just put the petrified wood behind a railing, and give better displays to the major attractions like the 563-carat Star of India sapphire and the dihexagonal Patricia Emerald. But I felt sure that, whatever bells and whistles they added to the wing, the Gold film would not survive. And how were kids then supposed to learn about cubes of gold on football fields, or alchemy, or about the sheer, giddy hilarity of watching an informational film on an endless loop after school?

I’m glad to see it’s on YouTube. It’s not a very good video; it’s really crooked. But you can clearly hear kids laughing in the kind of pure delight that’s only born of repetition.

Sadie Stein is an advisory editor of The Paris Review.

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