Beauty in the Eye of Science
by Christine Xu
It was an evening shortly before closing at the Yale Peabody Museum. The museum was empty except for a few staff workers in the lobby, and I was walking around on the third floor. I passed by the old geology exhibits, glancing at some of the rocks clustered in glass cabinets. Then at the end of the third floor, I went through a door — and felt like I had entered another universe.
I was alone in a dark, hushed space. Dim lights illuminated the objects that seemed to be floating around the room, suspended in air. I knew that I was in a geology exhibit, that these objects had to be rocks and minerals. But it was difficult to see them that way. They took astounding shapes and sizes and colors. One mineral looked like a conglomeration of melted marshmallows. Another seemed to be a fireworks display frozen mid-explosion. Another looked like gaping jaws, opening to reveal an intimidating set of shiny purple teeth.
As I walked around the perimeter of the room, I stared at a slab of frozen honey and a massive flower made of porous cardboard. I stopped to examine a group of objects that looked like they had just been pulled of a living, breathing human being: a pair of crimson lungs, a teal-green brain. When I found myself laughing at the absurdity of these objects, the sound echoed in the quiet room.
These rocks and minerals, some of the most bizarre specimens that the Earth has ever created, are on display in the David Friend Hall at the Yale Peabody Museum. The Peabody is a natural history museum with exhibits on everything from dodos to meteorites, and its new David Friend Hall showcases exquisite specimens from the mineralogy collection and world-class collectors.
The David Friend Hall looks nothing like any other part of the museum. Most of the exhibits in the museum are fairly typical: brightly lit, housing specimens in cabinets with detailed written explanations, sometimes accompanied by videos and music. On the other hand, the David Friend Hall is drastically different in its minimalism — the rocks and minerals are arranged in the dark room in clear glass cabinets, with no explanatory cards save for a white label stating its name and lender or donor. The strange, otherworldly rocks take the stage in this exhibit, filling up the room with their glorious colors.
To learn the story of this display that so extravagantly defies the museumgoer’s expectations, I visited the David Friend Hall again with a guide. Stefan Nicolescu, a geologist and collection manager at the museum, was one of the creators of the David Friend Hall. He looks friendly and approachable with his Santa Claus-like beard and twinkling eyes, and speaks with an accent that he credits to being from Transylvania (“Romania, actually — but Transylvania sounds more exciting.”) On this visit to the hall with Nicolescu, it was a busy Friday afternoon, and the room was no longer quiet but instead filled with murmuring adults and chattering children.
A year into its life at the museum, the David Friend Hall attracts audiences like this every day. Nicolescu and the other creators of the David Friend Hall are thrilled to see the enthusiastic reactions they received ever since the exhibit opened. Geologists, curators, mineral collectors and dealers, and artists all invested their time and energy to design the David Friend Hall. “They say it takes a village to raise a child, and it took the village at the Peabody Museum to raise the David Friend Hall,” said Nicolescu.
The Peabody Museum village shared a vision to create a revolutionary museum exhibit. They wanted the David Friend Hall to be as visually stunning as an art gallery, as if each mineral specimen were a beautiful sculpture crafted by an artist, Earth. They hoped their novel approach to museum design would present science to audiences in a new way — using aesthetics as a way to begin a conversation about science.
Nicolescu demonstrated this to me as he walked me around the hall, introducing me to each object on display as if they were old acquaintances. When I halted in front of a dark slab of rock — which looked like a chocolate bar studded with raspberries — he said, “I’m glad you stopped here, because this is my favorite specimen — well, one of my favorites.”
He explained that the chocolate bar was a slab of graphite schist embedded with garnets that had formed in the little pockets. “I call them stoplight garnets,” he said. As I looked closer, I marveled at how they glowed as brightly as traffic lights.
Scientists like Nicolescu study the geologic events occurring on our planet, and have documented how these garnets form in nature. Sediment, rich in carbon and clay minerals, accumulates in a lake. The lake evaporates and gets incorporated into mountains over time, and the extreme temperature and pressure transforms the carbon into graphite and the clay into the garnets. “The process must have been relatively stable for a long time for this to happen,” said Nicolescu, estimating that it would have taken around a hundred thousand years.
There was a scientific story behind each of the strange objects in the hall. The cardboard-like flower I had noticed before, he explained, is called a desert rose and was discovered in the Chihuahua Desert in Mexico. Desert roses form after a heavy downpour of rain, when temporary lakes dissolve salts and later evaporate to reveal these weird objects. Desert roses are extremely fragile due to their molecular geometry, and the petal-like blades could snap with one wrong poke.
Next we approached the marshmallow lumps. “I call this one the Michelin man,” said Nicolescu affectionately. The real name of the Michelin man is a sandstone concretion; such strange minerals form when water from rain and snow percolates into the Earth, bringing different types of dissolved chemicals that react intermittently over time to make blob-like shapes.
Gathering all of these incredible mineral specimens and setting up the David Friend Hall was a long and difficult process. Several years ago, when the curators at the museum began talking about setting up a new mineralogy exhibit, they didn’t have any of the minerals that we see on display today. Then, David Friend reached out and proposed an idea: donating part of his collection to start up the exhibit.
David Friend is an alumnus of Yale University, having graduated in 1969 with degrees in both engineering and musical composition. He calls himself a “serial entrepreneur” and has started eight of his own businesses. But his passion is mineral collecting, and over the years he has amassed an impressive collection. “There’s actually no room here; between cats and minerals this place is a zoo,” he said when we talked on the phone, referring to his house.
Friend became interested in rocks and minerals as a child. “I started collecting rocks when I was really young, like eight or something like that,” he said. He grew up in New Rochelle, New York, and was intrigued when he saw workers blasting away near where he lived, in preparation to construct the I-95 highway. “I started poking around in the blasting sites and found these little crystals on my way back from elementary school,” said Friend.
As Friend grew older, he found more efficient ways to collect rocks and minerals beyond wandering around construction sites. Occasionally he goes out and does fieldwork, hiking in nearby places and looking for interesting things. But the majority of his collecting involves purchases made at mineral shows. The biggest show in the world is the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show, which takes place in Arizona every year. “The miners and agents and dealers will show up, and there will be a huge flurry of discoveries on display,” said Friend. “That’s where I go.”
Most collectors prefer smaller, delicate pieces, but Friend got a reputation for seeking out the biggest and most extravagant minerals he could find. “I collect these really big specimens, like the ones in the museum — that’s kind of an oddball end of the mineral collecting business,” said Friend. “I almost always get a call because word goes around that someone’s got a large specimen that’s too big to sell to a normal person.”
A few years ago, Friend made an exciting find at the Tucson mineral show. He rushed to find Nicolescu, his colleague and friend who was also there. “Stefan, you have got to see the amethyst geode I just purchased,” he told Nicolescu. When Nicolescu saw the geode, he couldn’t believe his eyes. The geode — the jaws with jagged purple teeth I had noticed on my first visit — spans about five feet lengthwise, and while the outside is rough and plain, the inside sparkles with giant amethyst crystals.
Friend didn’t want to keep his specimens pent up at home; he wanted to put them on display at the museum for everyone to see. He also wanted his exhibit to be different from the typical geology exhibits he had seen at museums — identical rows of cabinets, filled with random assortments of rocks labeled with their names and chemical compositions. “I wanted to do the opposite. I wanted to make sure that every one of these specimens was displayed like the Hope Diamond,” said Friend.
To fulfill his vision, Friend sought the help of one of the designers at the Peabody Museum, Laura Friedman. “It took her about five nanoseconds to see what I was talking about, she just got it immediately,” he said. “She took the exhibition quality up a notch from if it was left to me.”
Laura Friedman offered to guide me through the David Friend Hall from her own perspective — an artist’s, rather than a scientist’s. Excited to hear her point of view, I met Friedman in the exhibit. Friedman — an artist, dancer, and sculptor by training — struck me as looking very much like a dancer with her slender build and the fluid movement of her hands as she spoke.
As we walked around the room, she explained how she decided to display each specimen: backlighting them to bring out the unique colors, clustering them based on colors and shapes that complemented each other. She would stop frequently and gaze at the specimens, lost in thought. “It’s just a glorious thing,” she would say softly. “What a beautiful, beautiful form.”
After talking to Friend, Friedman did the work of designing the display, spending countless hours figuring out how to arrange the specimens. She printed out photographs of the specimens and rearranged them over and over in the empty room. She might not have known that much about the science behind the rocks and minerals, but it was easy for her to work with them by envisioning them as art pieces, as sculptures that had sprung from the Earth.
She put the bright red minerals together and the toothpaste blue minerals next to them, bringing out striking contrast of the colors. She arranged most of the specimens around the perimeter of the room, but placed the most stunning large ones in the center and illuminated them with ceiling spotlights. In one cabinet, containing four minerals in different pastel shades of rose pink and mint green, she arranged the minerals so the two on the outside seemed to be leaning towards the two on the inside.
Friedman’s task wasn’t easy, but she was well trained for it and familiar with the museum scene. Friedman grew up in New York City, where she spent much of her time as a child at the Museum of Natural History. “I used to go there all the time and stand in front of the dioramas and just stand there and stand there, until I could pretend that the whole world had gone away and I was standing on the mountaintop with the mountain lions,” said Friedman.
She went on to study fine arts — participating in a program with a focus on old-school dissections and anatomical drawings — as well as sculpture and theater and dance. After grad school, she was trying to figure out what she would do with her degrees and ended up working as a designer for the Museum of Natural History, her old haunt. Over the years, she has worked with not only rocks and minerals but also plants, skeletons, animal specimens.
While still living in New York, Friedman took on a part-time job working for the Yale Peabody Museum as an exhibit designer. She was overjoyed to have the opportunity to work on the David Friend Hall. “I’m able to work with objects here that I never would have seen in that way — I mean everyone can come see them — but to be able to work with them as intimately as I have…it’s much more than a pleasure, it’s a real inspiration,” said Friedman.
Designing the David Friend Hall presented its particular challenges and opportunities, given the jarring aesthetic qualities of the specimens. “It’s never a cookie cutter type of approach; you have to be responding to the material you’re working with,” said Friedman. For Friedman, it was important to display these specimens in the most dramatic environment possible. She found that her background in theater became useful, as she designed the stage and spotlights and directed where each player would go.
Friend and Friedman also discussed the problem of whether labels and explanations would be incorporated into the David Friend Hall. They decided to scrap the explanations, keeping the environment simple and letting the beauty of the minerals speak for themselves. However, two of the directors at the Peabody Museum proposed a compromise: that they design an optional app that museumgoers can download on their phone, reading more about the science behind the minerals if they wish to do so.
The Peabody Museum village wanted the artistry of the display to draw in audiences and spark curiosity about the science behind the minerals. After all, besides being “eye candy,” as Nicolescu puts it, specimens like those in the David Friend Hall are fascinating to geologists from a scientific perspective. Jay Ague, a professor of geology and a curator for the Peabody Museum, provided advice on selecting minerals with interesting scientific backgrounds. He approved every mineral that went into the exhibit, based on not just its appearance but also its significance to science.
When I met with him, Ague, who is grey-bearded and wore round glasses and a cozy sweater, talked with excitement as he gestured to different locations on a map in his office. He does research on mountain building processes, and with his team of researchers, ventures into the mountains of Connecticut to collect samples of garnets. The garnets can tell him about the environment in which they were formed, which gives clues about the tumultuous geologic events occurring inside the Earth.
Ague is interested in the carbon cycle: where carbon goes, how it’s incorporated into rocks and mountains or released into the atmosphere. By studying garnets that carry the record of historical processes, he can figure out what the carbon cycle might have looked like hundreds of millions of years ago. In doing so, he can investigate climate change today and disentangle human effects from natural climate variations.
The Yale Peabody Museum has a special place in Ague’s heart, because that was where he got his inspiration to become a geologist as a child. He recalled a specific moment that had a huge influence on him: as he flipped through LIFE magazine he saw a painting of dinosaurs in their natural habitat, grazing on prehistoric plants and flying in the air and towering majestically over their domain.
He hadn’t known then, but this painting was the mural that still spans the Great Hall of Dinosaurs at the Yale Peabody Museum today. The young Ague couldn’t take his eyes away from the painting. “Worlds that are long gone, including the backdrops of these paintings which showed various mountain ranges and cliffs and all that — I was just fascinated by that. I still am.”
He went on to study geology, going on expeditions to different parts of the world to collect and study rocks and minerals. Appointed to Yale as a professor later on, Ague became involved in the Peabody Museum and now has been working there for more than three decades. He is still inspired to remember how a museum exhibit impacted his life as a child. “It captures the public’s imagination,” said Ague. “I think that’s first and foremost, and once you’ve done that, you can use that as a teachable moment, and bring in some of the latest scientific discoveries, the history of science, and everything in between.”
Ague contributed to the David Friend Hall by offering a scientific perspective, complementing Friedman’s artistic decisions. For instance, Ague and Nicolescu decided to keep some specimens that were less visually appealing, but scientifically interesting for the stories behind their formation. “The project actually went incredibly well,” said Ague. “You have to credit people like Laura and the leadership of the museum, collection managers like Stefan…we just really worked together, all of us, as a team.”
Still, the team faced many challenges in the construction of the exhibit. For one, they worried that the combined weight of the larger specimens would cause them to crash through the floor. (The biggest mineral, a fluorite, weighs over 3000 pounds and is directly positioned over Friedman’s office on the second floor.) Eventually, architects assured them that the floor was strong enough to hold all of the minerals. Transporting the specimens too was difficult; the fragile desert rose was shipped to them in a crate filled with unprinted newspaper, to prevent it from snapping into a billion pieces on the way.
On ribbon-cutting day, in October of last year, everything seemed ready to go. The team was prepared for David Friend and the press and various Yale dignitaries to show up. Less than 24 hours before the big opening, they tried to slide the glass case over the metal plate holding the sandstone concretion. It didn’t fit.
Somewhere along the line, someone had made a measurement mistake, but there was no time for pointing fingers. Nicolescu and the others needed to find a solution, and fast. “I don’t know what the blood pressure of everyone was, but I expect it was pretty high,” said Nicolescu. One member of the Peabody Museum village was a metalworker who took on the task of taming the two misfits — he went to his shop and ground down the metal plate with handheld electric grinders, until the plate matched the dimensions of the case. The case slid on. Everybody breathed a sigh of relief.
Before they knew it, the David Friend Hall was filled with people: the press, the audiences, the Yale dignitaries. Nicolescu found his heart beating fast as he didn’t know what to expect. “Feelings on the evening of October 13, 2016?” Nicolescu recalled. “A mishmash: trepidation, nervousness, excitement, concern, joy. And a long list of questions. What would the general reaction to what we did be like? How will the unorthodox way we displayed the specimens be received?” Having invested so much of their time and intellectual energy into this display, Nicolescu and all the others waited anxiously for the verdict.
But there was no need to worry — the ceremony was a success. Crowds of attendees, from the Yale provost to guests from all over the country, swarmed to congratulate the creators of the display, praising the beauty and enchantment of what they had created. “I was left with a fuzzy feeling of good,” said Nicolescu. “We did the job right.” Many smiles could be seen that evening, illuminated by the strange glowing figures standing guard around the room.
Now, the David Friend Hall has been in place for slightly over a year and seems to be here to stay. Every day, people walk into the hall and their eyes widen in awe, just as I couldn’t help but stare in amazement when I first entered this space.
Walking with Nicolescu in the David Friend Hall, the two of us lost track of time examining every specimen and discussing its appearance and story in detail. We finally stopped and became silent at a small specimen embedded in a glass case in the wall. It was about the size of my palm, and it looked like a stubby tree with moss growing out of it. The colors were incredibly vivid, dark brown and sparkling green. “I love this one. It looks like a tree, a bonsai or something,” I told Nicolescu.
Nicolescu responded, “Someone said it looks like David Bowie wearing a green boa, some people say a bonsai, some people say it looks like the Great Hulk.” Then he chuckled. “Or you could say it looks like pyromorphite on barite, ruining the metaphor…the magic.”
When we had examined every glass case except for one, Nicolescu directed us towards a display holding several pieces of jewelry arrayed out spectacularly. There were elaborate necklaces, emeralds and rubies and sapphires, carefully cut gemstones on rings and brooches and bracelets. Here, I thought, was an example of when people recognized the beauty of rocks without any help from science.
Nicolescu said he wanted to show me something, and he made an announcement to the room. “Hello everybody, I am the guy in charge of mineralogy and meteoritics here at the museum…I’m going to turn off the lights in the cases for a second, so don’t be surprised when the cases go dark. You are most welcome to come and see here what I’m doing.”
A hush fell on the room, which was previously filled with conversation and the excited shouts of kids. Everyone came over, the children running and pressing their hands and noses against the glasses. Nicolescu took out a laser pointer from his pocket. The laser pointer emitted a violet beam, which illuminated the jewels on the necklaces and rings. They fluoresced with eerie colors, the green emeralds turning red and the purple opals turning icy blue. The crowd oohed and ahhed.
“My mommy used to make jewelry!” one of the kids told Nicolescu excitedly. “Actually,” his mother clarified, “I worked at Tiffany’s for sixteen years.” Surprised but pleased, Nicolescu started talking to them about some of the pieces of jewelry on display. While some people floated away, others gathered around to listen. Nicolescu explained the stories behind the pieces of jewelry, and talked about how their fluorescence comes from their unique chemical compositions: the atoms absorb light, then release their own photons at a different frequency.
I thought of something that Friedman had said to me: “It makes you realize how incredibly beautiful the Earth is. It’s very powerful, and I think that people do see that when they come in here, and they respond to that. They seem to get that.” For her, and Nicolescu and the others who put their energy and passion into designing the exhibit, the goal was to share that beauty with people. To show them what the Earth can create — and to foster an appreciation for the science that goes into protecting the Earth’s future.
When I left the David Friend Hall that day, I passed the gaping jaws of the amethyst geode and looked at it one last time. There were two ways I could have thought about it. A sculpture of a strange animal’s jaws, filled with jagged teeth: a beautiful, mysterious, dazzling piece of art. Or a product of the Earth, an arrangement of chemicals that can be scientifically dissected to tell us something about the world we live in. They were different ways of describing the same thing. But to me now — and I think to many other people — they both make a lot of sense.