Opals in the Harvard Mineral and Gem Collection

Posted on May 1, 2021 by Raquel Alonso-Perez, PhD Curator, Mineralogical & Geological Museum, Harvard University

HISTORY OF THE MINERALOGICAL AND GEOLOGICAL MUSEUM, HARVARD UNIVERSITYThe mineral collection of the Mineralogical and Geological Museum at Harvard University (MGMH) has played a significant role in the advancement of the science of mineralogy. The MGMH cares for close to 100,000 mineral specimens, representing more than 2,250 unique mineral species from a vast range of localities. The Rock and Ore Collection has been developed and gathered through years of field study by faculty and students, with collections from New England and Western United States, and other notable localities such as Langban, Sweden and Crestmore, California. Approximately 1,500 meteorite specimens and 1,300 gemstones complete the museum’s holdings. Many notable collectors and scientists have utilized the collections in their research, resulting in hundreds of publications referencing them. Close to 230 years of cultivation and study has resulted in an internationally known repository of minerals, rocks and ores, meteorites and gemstones, which as a whole is considered one of the finest collections in the United States. FIGURE 1: MGMH #88470 Opal, gem nodule in rhyolite, Iris Mine, Hacienda La Esperanza, Queretaro, Mexico, 7x6 cm. Gift of J.A. Garland, 1892. Note the inclusions on the close-up left image. Photos by Robert Weldon/GIA. Benjamin Waterhouse was the first caretaker of the collection and was appointed to the university in 1784 at the personal petition of future president John Adams who advocated for the early study of natural history in America. A small collection of minerals was assembled for the instruction of students in Waterhouse’s inorganic chemistry and natural history classes. The first significant acquisition occurred in 1793 when London physician and mineral collector J. C. Lettsom donated more than 800 specimens, primarily ores and useful minerals. Two years later, Theodore C. Mozad, the French Ambassador in Boston, donated a collection of more than 150 French specimens to the Mineralogical Museum. By 1806, the collection was nearing a total of 1,500 specimens. The systematic collection as we know it today originated in 1850 when Josiah Parsons Cooke was appointed the Erving Professor of Chemistry and Mineralogy, a position which included caring for the mineral collection. The collection, which contained over 32,000 specimens when Cooke began, was in a state of disarray. With Cooke’s knowledge of minerals being more chemical than physical, he enlisted the help of Benjamin Silliman, Jr. of Yale to determine what was worth preserving and what might better be deaccessioned. It took Silliman two weeks to cull and arrange the collection into the seed of the contemporary collection and to lay the ground-work for future collections acquisition. Continued expansion required the collection to be moved to several different storage facilities to accommodate its growth. In 1891, the collection was moved into its permanent home in the University Museums on Oxford Street. Louis Agassiz, founder of the Museum of Comparative Zoology, ini- tiated construction of the University Museum Complex in 1892. The 80 exhibit cases in the public gallery were brought in from another location at Harvard during the building’s con- struction, dating their production to a time before 1892. These cabinets are still in use and after a refurbishment in 2012, still house nearly 10,000 of the museum’s finest quality minerals. The collection has grown to its current size under the care of eleven curators, including current Curatrix Raquel Alonso-Perez, through a combination of university field- work, funded acquisitions, and generous donations. Many notable gifts of priceless mineral specimens and collections have been made throughout the history of the museum, creating the vibrant and enlightening collections we have today. One notable donation occurred following the 1892....

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