New hall of gems is set to open Museum: Smithsonian updates display areas for spectacular jewels and minerals.

September 07, 1997|By Debbie M. Price | Debbie M. Price,SUN STAFF

Turn, stop, click. The pedestal pauses in its rotation and then after seconds of darkness, the lights flick on.

No, no, no. The pedestal must stop and the lights must come on simultaneously.

Turn, stop, click. Shimmer, shimmer, shimmer.

The big blue Hope Diamond, the most famous jewel in the world, pivots and turns in its new home while nervous technicians synchronize the slow dance designed to show off its unparalleled beauty.

Outside on Constitution Avenue, Washington's morning rush-hour traffic is winding down from its jaw-clinching frenzy. In less than 60 minutes, the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History will open to the day's visitors. The moms and pops, school kids and seniors -- 6 million of them a year -- will be expecting to see the legendary blue diamond. It better be back in its showcase by then.

The security guard, upon whose shoulders rests responsibility for the gem, is taking no guff from the frazzled museum staff or from photographers taking pictures of the Hope Diamond during this dress rehearsal.

So many parts must come together, and there is so little time before the acclaimed $13 million Janet Annenberg Hooker Hall of Geology, Gems and Minerals opens at high noon Sept. 20.

The new hall, named after the 92-year-old Annenberg Hooker, who donated $5 million and her Starburst Diamonds, has been almost a decade from dream to completion, and the road of fund-raising, design and construction has been nothing if not challenging.

Like the National Gem Collection itself, the hall was built one private donation upon the next until, voila, an unprecedented amount of private funding was amassed, to renovate 20,000 square feet of the museum with fiber-optic lighting, granite floors, a "walk-through mine" and interactive computers.

The new hall will showcase everything from a 4.5 billion-year-old iron-ore meteorite to fragile crystals in rainbow hues to a 106-pound crystal ball and the National Gem Collection.

"It has been an interesting journey," says Tiane C. Benson, the museum's associate director for development and public affairs. When we finally open the doors on Sept. 20, we will be thrilled."

Preparations

Electrical wires snake down from the ceiling, and the gleaming hardwood paneling in the Harry Winston Gallery is still wrapped in protective paper as Jeffrey E. Post, curator of gems and minerals, takes a visitor in late August through the new hall on the second floor of the museum. Scant weeks remain until the curtain goes up, but Post is not worried.

More than 100 people worked on the project, but if there is one midwife, it is Post. Mineral names, people names, historical dates, scientific properties, construction specifications -- he could recite them in his sleep and probably does. All manner of details have received his touch. Even the salt crystals scanned for a gigantic display photograph came from a McDonald's french fry he swiped from his 5-year-old daughter's Happy Meal.

"I suspect that this would be the first place that James Smithson would want to visit if he could come back," says Post, pausing before a hunk of Smithsonite, an aqua-green mineral discovered in New Mexico, first analyzed by and named for the English nobleman whose bequest established the Smithsonian Institution.

The museum today has more than 300,000 gems and mineral specimens, though most are homely but important rocks kept for research.

The specimens that have made the cut for display are the stars of the mineral universe. Arrayed in a kaleidoscope of purple amethyst crystals, dark blue azurite, ruddy rhodochrosite, spiky orange crocoite, green-veined malachite, watery aquamarines and pale green tourmalines, they are a breathtaking reminder of the beauty beneath the Earth's surface.

The mineral gallery is one of seven discrete sections in the Janet Annenberg Hooker Hall. Despite its vastness, the new hall is designed to accommodate hurried visitors and those for whom no rock is too arcane.

"Fast-track" glass cases spotlight the most significant specimens while side rooms and computer displays provide endless detail.

The first section -- or the last, depending upon one's path -- is the Harry Winston Gallery, built with a $1 million donation from the Harry Winston Research Foundation expressly to showcase the Hope Diamond. (The late Harry Winston bought the Hope Diamond from the estate of Washington society doyenne and mining heiress Evalyn Walsh McLean and gave it to the museum in 1958.)

In the old hall of gems and minerals, the Hope Diamond rested in a small and badly lighted wall safe behind thick greenish glass that distorted its color and muted its brilliance. A modest plaque told its name but nothing else.

The Hope Diamond now will reside in a four-sided glass vault, which in turn sits on a columned dais. The walls of the vault, built by Diebold Inc., are "water clear" but allegedly tough enough to withstand a hail of bullets. At night, the pedestal recesses into the floor for even safer keeping.

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