Rocks, gems to be stars of Smithsonian exhibit Attraction: 'We humbly set out to create the finest Earth science exhibit in the world,' director say.

October 02, 1997|By COX NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - The Smithsonian Institution has opened its new exhibition hall - a super-secured repository where geology dazzles even the most jaded of visitors - with a gem of a show.

"We humbly set out to create the finest Earth science exhibit in the world," said Robert Sullivan, a museum director who helped design the $13 million Janet Annenberg Hooker Hall of Geology, Gems and Minerals at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History.

The third-floor complex includes a dramatic new setting for the ,, 45.52-carat Hope Diamond, the world's most popular museum object, and it ends with a sparkling display of real stardust, gleaned from a meteorite and older than our solar system.

This concluding "vial of diamond dust was formed in another galaxy before Earth came into being," marveled Robert Fri, director of the Museum of Natural History.

Conceived in 1988 and constructed over the past two years, the Hall of Geology, Gems and Minerals represents the most ambitious modernization of a permanent exhibition in the Smithsonian's history.

The new hall continues the institution's trend of expanding through private contributions rather than taxpayer funding. A longtime donor of rare gems, Janet Annenberg Hooker, a New York philanthropist with homes in Palm Beach, Fla., and Newport, R.I. gave $5 million toward the hall now that bears her name. The museum also houses the O. Orkin Insect Zoo, funded by the pest control company.

At the entrance of the exhibition hall, the Hope Diamond is displayed in the Harry Winston Gallery, named for the New York jeweler who gave this rarest of jewels to the Smithsonian in 1958 and whose son, Ronald Winston, also contributed to the modernization.

Between the diamond and stardust are:

* Displays of historic jewelry and sparkling gem stones.

* Re-creations of four American mines that show how minerals appear underground.

* A movie and electronic displays of plate tectonics - the geological equivalent of evolution - that shows how the Earth's surface is shaped by the sliding and shifting of underground plates.

* A space gallery of meteorites and rocks from Mars and the moon.

* An assortment of interactive computer displays explaining the whys, wheres and hows of earthquakes, volcanoes, rock formation and other basics of Earth science.

The exhibition is the world's "most diverse, deep and important collection of geological specimens," said Fri. "And there are 'immersion' experiences everywhere you look."

The exhibition's central attraction will continue to be the Hope Diamond, whose human and geological history are traced in its own gallery. The rare, deep blue diamond, which geologists believe was created by intense pressure deep below the Earth's crust over a billion years ago, was mined in India more than three centuries ago.

The diamond weighed more than 112 carats - more than twice its present size - when it was sold to Louis XIV in 1668. It remained among France's crown jewels for over 100 years. After the French Revolution, the fabled blue diamond was stolen and had been recut to its present size and shape when it reappeared in London in 1792.

The diamond's name came from its purchase by gem collector Henry Philip Hope around 1830. In the early 1920s, the diamond was purchased by Washington socialite Evalyn Walsh McLean, who wore it in its current setting - a pendant surrounded by 16 white diamonds on a platinum necklace chain bearing 45 more diamonds.

Harry Winston bought the diamond in 1949 and nine years later gave it to the Smithsonian, where each year it is seen by more people than any other museum object in the world.

In the new gallery, the priceless Hope Diamond is displayed in a unique, $500,000 display case and vault built and donated by Diebold, an Ohio manufacturer of security systems. In a case of high-tech security glass, the diamond turns slowly on a pedestal, pausing for 10 seconds every quarter-turn to sparkle under fiber optic lights.

If sensors detect a tremor, temperature change or any other indication of problems, the diamond and its pedestal automatically descend in a split second into a vault beneath floor level, where the gem also spends each night.

Pub Date: 10/02/97

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