Tiny Pieces of Planets at the Harvard Museum of Natural History

Article by: Wil MacLaughlin

Editor’s note: For our “collections” issue, we wanted to include a range of perspectives on engaging with and thinking about museum collections. This piece, a creative take on a museum collection written from the vantage point of a visitor, rather than a museum professional, provides just one window into the vast array of interpretive processes – often personal, creative, and exploratory – a collection can open.

Orpiment is a rock. The little specimen of it that I saw at the Harvard Museum of Natural History looks like a chunk of potato smeared with mustard and left to dry for several trillion years.  Wulfenite looks like a wizard cast a spell on moss and made it stagnant and sharp and eternal. And quartz, of course, looks like what you’d expect to find at the top of the staff of a wizard who, for whatever reason, is casting a paralyzing spell on some moss.

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During a recent walk through the room full of weird gems and geodes and pebbles at the museum, all I could do was compare them to things in the world I knew. I kept thinking of food. The rocks didn’t look like themselves. A slice of Rhotochrosite, thick and purple with a little white halo in the middle, looked like the most delicious fruit in the world. Stibnite looked like something you could suck on, something that would taste like licorice and bison meat, a post-marathon popsicle that would replenish brain and body both. I wasn’t the only one struggling to describe these stones. I heard a father call to his daughter. “Look, Lily! This one looks like a flower!” Food, flowers, rocks, people. Do we not depend as much on the density beneath us as the soft stuff that grows from it? Why is it that I don’t, when eating cereal, consider how much it reminds me of mendipite?

I went to this museum a bunch of times as a child. My grandmother took me and I never really cared about the rock room. I wanted to look at weird jars with seahorses in them and the taxidermied wolves and the totem poles and all the other dynamic stuff, the stuff that used to be able to move (or was made by movers). The rocks just sit there. Wolves and bugs and even dinosaurs and trees are at least a bit like us. They live and die. They need to eat. But the minerals and stones and elements didn’t offer me that mirror. Muhammad Ali once boasted of murdering a rock. It’s a great line because of just how precisely preposterous it is. Rocks don’t die, because rocks don’t live. For that they bored me, and the children I saw on my recent visit seemed to share my former self’s boredom. Kids screamed and whined in the rock room. At four years old, what can one do in the face of something four million years old, and something that will endure, in its own subtle way, for another four million? Perhaps the child’s reaction is the most apt: to whine and cry in wordless bewilderment and frustration.

Kutnohorite looks like a frosted human brain, pink and glistening and perfectly preserved. In the Czech Republic, in a small town called Kutna Hora, there’s an ossuary, a stygian church made of bone; thousands of human skulls are heaped and stacked in the basement of the church. Most of them come from plague victims, victims of a menace that rocks needn’t worry about. When were the skulls dug up? What were these folks like? Was there a kutonohorite brain within each of them? Do brains become boulders? These are thoughts I didn’t have when I was four. Perhaps my own brain has a bit more kutnohorite in it today that it did when I came with my grandmother.

If it does, it didn’t help me make sense of the way the collection was classified. It came as a relief that even people devoted to the study of rocks were having trouble.  A small squad of graduate students bemoaned the legendary difficulty of a class called “Materials” where their tests involved identifying rocks. “You’ll be lucky if you get two of them right,” one guy warned. There were cases of sulfates and sulfides and oxides and halides, but it was hard to tell what made a thing the thing it was. If you look at a bear, and you then see another bear, you know that the other bear is a bear. But these rocks seemed to resist that type of classification. One chunk of smithsonite looked like blue macaroni and cheese. The other chunk was a dildo. I couldn’t figure it out.  One case was labeled Arsenites and Kin, but little baby Berzeliite looked nothing like mommy Mottramite.

Let me return to bears for a second. Bears are scary. A two-thousand pound grizzly bear charged me once, a false charge ¾ it ran full speed at me, stopped thirty feet away, stood up, stared at me for a terrible minute, and then lumbered on her (his?) way.  I still dream about it. Entering the rock room, I didn’t expect to feel fear, but fear arrived. It didn’t charge, but there it was. So many of the rocks looked like diseases, like spikes and sores and scabs that could grow on human skin. Maybe the geologists and collectors who named the rocks agree with me. I saw plagonite. I saw mestastibinite. The scariest of all was halotrichite. It was a simple stone, like one you’d find on any old beach, but from it grew long white wisps of downy hair.  Were I to go a for hike, not knowing of its existence, this strange stone with its familiar shag would frighten me more than a bear. Or perhaps, more accurately, it would scare me the same as a hairless, stone-skinned bear. I’d just spent half an hour meditating on the fundamental inaccessibility of rocks. And then, to show me what a fool I was, the universe gifted me with a rock that shared with me the most delicate and temporally dynamic part of my physical identity. I’m not kidding that my plan for after the museum had been to get a haircut. I looked at the rock for a terrible minute. I felt stoned.

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On my way out of the collection, I paused by a case with some large, basic rocks, the kind you’d see in any forest. They were grey and brown, basketball sized, baseball sized. I was about to breeze by when the label caught my eye: “Pieces of Tiny Planets.” Of course! What is a planet but a giant rock? Are all rocks not also planets? Doesn’t every kid, when he populates the little cardboard cubicles of his collection with amethyst and agate and pyrite and topaz, come to own worlds? Is the child not a god? When you own a rock, when you collect rocks, you possess the planet. There are rocks that, if left on the street, every single person who saw them would grab and save and treasure. And there are rocks that look like drab little nothings. But the profundity of their age, I suddenly felt, and the ineffable mysteries behind their travels, made them all seem collectible. I suddenly felt like I wanted every rock. Every type and every shape.

The words were right but the order was wrong. Not Pieces of Tiny Planets but Tiny Pieces of Planets. As I left the exhibit, a young woman entering the rock room wondered to her companion if they’d see any diamonds. She was in the room of a thousand fragmented planets. A brutal miscellany surrounded her.  Massive, snarled, bulging, jagged, twisty, cancerous, smooth, brainy, dildo-y, hairy stones in every direction, each in the shape it took in its trillion year life. What this collection teaches, I think, what it shows us in all its diversity, with rocks from every continent and from the continents of worlds that broke and landed on us and no longer are, is that if diamonds are special, they aren’t uniquely so. And their artificial facets hide something true and deep about what rocks really are and how they came to be and what our window among them and upon them really means. But diamonds tell a truth as well. By cutting them, shaping them, giving them, and treasuring them, we reveal a sad but beautiful desire. We’re not here for long. And it’s a consolation, in our short little bits of life, to collect the world we live on. There’s no greater pledge of love in our culture than a little bit of rock, wrapped around a finger, worn as a symbol of a love that, like the rock, won’t ever die.

IMAGE CREDIT: Photography with permission of the Harvard Museum of Natural History © President & Fellows Harvard College. The specimens are drawn from the collections of the Mineralogical and Geological Museum at Harvard University. These are among the 3,000 specimens on display at the Harvard Museum of Natural History in the newly renovated Earth & Planetary Science gallery.