Buried Treasure: Below UA Streets Lies One Of The Nation’s Great Mineral Collectionsby Logical Lizard on Aug. 20, 2009, under Geology, Hidden Tucson, Meteorite Science, Technology
The first known mention can be found in the U of A Register from 1892, which rather grandly states the university will “make the Museum of Geology and Mineralogy an adequate representative of the ores and minerals of Arizona, as well as a place for the deposit of everything illustrative of the practical workings of the mines, mills, and furnaces.”
Curatorial Specialist Sven Bailey patiently studied the history of the University of Arizona Mineral Collection and recorded the five other temporary homes it occupied before relocating to the spacious and airy basement of the Flandrau Science Center.
If you walk into the Science Center, past the planetarium, maybe pausing for a moment to admire the Mars Wall, and then scamper down two long flights of stairs decorated with brightly painted murals, you will come upon a geologist’s dreamscape. The main collection comprises some 19,000 specimens, plus 7,000 micromounts. Of special delight to me was the mysterious Silverbell iron meteorite. Discovered in 1939, somewhere northwest of Tucson, the exact find location has been lost to science, and the UA Mineral Museum has the largest piece in the world. In addition, I was intrigued by a mock-up of the famous Tucson Ring meteorite, appearing as it did back in the 1800s during the least glamorous part of its life (it was once used as an anvil in the Tucson presidio, and has now been promoted to the rather magnificent centerpiece of the Smithsonian’s meteorite display in Washington, D.C.).
“Our collection is actively used for research, and the curator is currently building a new mineral database,” Sven tells me. He is a tall, soft spoken, and thoughtful man. He seems wonderfully at ease in the beautiful and elegant underground collection; he could almost be the custodian of a secret treasure mine. “Some of our meteorites and minerals are studied by Planetary Sciences,” he continues. “And they are also available for students. Some university instructors lead field trips to the museum and assign extra credit.” Now, that’s my idea of school Extra credit for looking at rocks!
The mineral museum welcomes school programs, and children of all ages have enjoyed the remarkable collection with a concentration of students from First through Eighth Grades. Last year over 100 school groups visited the Flandrau and the mineral museum, and that translates into a lot of kids getting a first-hand look at geology, mineralogy, mining history, and meteorites.
The museum is also open to the general public and Sven and his colleagues are available to answer mineral-related questions. For many years, Senior Curatorial Specialist Shirley Wetmore, served in a “first contact” capacity with visitors who stopped by with samples hoping they had found a meteorite or rare mineral. Shirley was universally liked, did a great deal to further the public’s understanding of rocks, minerals, and meteorites, and recently retired from the museum.
Sven is a hard working man, handling the equivalent of several different jobs at once. In addition to showing visitors around and answering questions, he is engaged in an ongoing project to photograph the mineral collection (see photos on this page), keeps the website up to date, and helps design and coordinate signage and special exhibitions.
It always feels good to see people happy in their work and Sven is especially enthusiastic when he leads me into a back room, opens an impressive safe, and produces a genuinely staggering specimen of leaf gold. Found on the Crystalline-Alabama Claim in Jamestown, California, it was recently acquired by the museum with the rest of the Hubert de Monmonier collection, a significant group of minerals, never before seen in public. Approximately 870 pieces, including some very important specimens, and 300 books, were donated by the de Monmonier estate. A stunning exhibit of some of the finest pieces from that collection is currently on display in the Flandrau’s main exhibition space.
So, doesn’t all of this sound great? A world-class mineral museum with active ongoing research programs, rare meteorites, beautiful displays, a friendly, enthusiastic and knowledgeable staff keen to interact with, and inform the public. Too good to be true? Almost. Due to budget cuts the University of Arizona Mineral Museum is only open on Fridays and Saturdays, and to school groups by appointment. If the feared permanent closure of the Flandrau Science Center does take place, what will become of this extraordinary collection?
117 years ago, UA set out to build a mineral collection that would reflect the epic geologic and mining history of Arizona. They succeeded admirably. Now this great collection is open for only two days a week, and even that may be nothing but a temporary stay of execution. After six years with the museum, the talented Sven Bailey is moving on to a new job unconnected with the university. “Will we miss his expertise terribly,” said Executive Director Alexis Faust. But with the museum and the Science Center facing an uncertain future, who can blame Sven for moving on? Maybe if the Flandrau had a sufficient operating budget he would have stayed.
In a recent letter to Tucson Weekly, former associate director of the Flandrau, Joe Ruggiero, shared this fine sentiment: “For 35 years, through good times and bad, Flandrau provided this community with some measure of wonder, a place where one could come face to face with phenomena and see the beauty of the sky explained in vivid detail.”
Alexis, the current director states: “We have wonderful resources here. There should be a conduit for that information to get to the people of Tucson, the taxpayers.”
The Flandrau Science Center and the UA Mineral Museum are part of that conduit. The mineral museum is an extremely important and unique educational and historical resource. Allowing it to be closed, and therefore lost to the people of Tucson, would be a crime against science.