1997-98 Arts Preview

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Diamonds, rubies and ordinary rocks star at area's new Mine Gallery.

A memorial to the commander of the Civil War's Massachusetts 54th Regiment comes to town.

A profile of America's most successful playwright as he prepares "Proposals" for a pre-Broadway run

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Gem Dandy: The Hope Diamond Has a New Home
The Hope Diamond sits in its new display in the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History.
Tylor Mallory for The Washington Post

By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 7, 1997

Seeing the new and glowing home of Washington's most famous rocks, gems and minerals will take a while.

After all, a visitor needs to soak up the blue majesty of the Hope Diamond, the wonder of the ring-shaped meteorite, the opulence of Empress Marie-Louise's tiara and the sparkling highway of sapphires, rubies and emeralds.

Bottlenecks will be allowed, and even planned for, in the simple design and layout of the renovated spaces that open Sept. 20. But the gems and crystals are only a prelude.

Deep inside the hall, an unusual payoff comes when the light dims and a visitor enters the Mine Gallery. Here, the mood dramatically shifts, the prosaic elegance of another type of handiwork takes over. Four mines are re-created, and the tiniest glimmers of zinc, gems, copper and lead can be seen in their natural habitat.

In the nearly 20,000 square feet of the new gem hall, there are many facts to absorb and senses to be attacked. But the mine section represents ground zero. Each tableau drives home the unstated point that all the glamour of the entranceway starts with hard work.

It takes people back to some elementary science, says Jeffrey Post, curator of the National Gem Collection at the National Museum of Natural History. At the moment he is checking the display of an actual piece of the gem mine from Amelia County, Va., which Smithsonian scientists helped excavate. This is not a make-believe theme park but pretty close to the real thing.

The new showcase is the latest modernization project to be completed at the Smithsonian. The old Gem Hall, opened in 1958, had hardly been touched in the intervening years. Two years ago the museum closed the gallery for total renovation. In the past 40 years, new disciplines like plate tectonics the study of Earth's shifting crust developed. And donations to the museum have skyrocketed. Approximately one-third of the new items on display were acquired since 1958, the year Harry Winston gave the Hope Diamond to the Smithsonian. And new display techniques have revolutionized the look of many exhibits. In the old hall, nothing could be touched. Now the complex is dotted with nearly 50 interactive stations, high-definition monitors and disc players. One interactive display connects to geologists in the field; in the solar system gallery, a map of the world records every earthquake and volcanic eruption since 1960 complete with sound effects.

The undertaking was done with $13 million in private funds: Janet Annenberg Hooker, the philanthropist whose name graces the hall, gave $5 million, as well as some rare yellow starburst diamonds. The Harry Winston Research Foundation donated $1 million; the luxurious cherry-paneled space holding the Hope Diamond will bear the Winston name. The National Mining Association spearheaded a $2 million drive and helped with the materials, access and expertise in the mine sections. And Apple and Toshiba donated the high-tech electronics.

What they have created is a model field trip destination with dozens of displays to intrigue both adults and children, as well as attract the serious scientist. The Smithsonian is calling it the world's most comprehensive earth sciences complex.

The central entrance to the hall, where the Hope Diamond sits in a clear glass display, serves also as an orientation gallery with five knockout examples of natural finds gracing the corners. A 325-pound shaft of copper found in Michigan provides a solid counterpoint to the sparkles of the diamond.
The American Golden Topaz weighs approximately 23,000 carats, 10 lbs.
Robert A. Reeder - The Washington Post

The hall has seven distinct exhibit areas. Given the enormous crowds the museum pulls in a normal year 6 million the designers have arranged almost all the galleries with space for those who want to check out the basic collection and also those who want to linger. In the minerals area, for example, there is a main "fast track" with displays and text. This center aisle includes primary samples of crystals, such as rose quartz. After soaking this up, those who have the time can move to the sides of the gallery, where the cases have in-depth explanations on color, growth and origin. The same pattern follows in the Earth and solar system room-with 5,300 square feet, the largest exhibit area of the hall. There, a popular display, say the famous Mars meteorite, occupies the center space. Then a visitor can move to the side and, using a computer, choose a meteorite to create a crater.

Throughout the hall, the designers have made extraordinary use of light, both artificial and natural. After passing through the Mine Gallery, the visitor enters a room whose focus is Mother Nature's own sculpture of long columns of volcanic rock and is washed by the light from a wall-size window that looks onto the Mall. In keeping with the room's theme, wall panels describe the kind of stone used in the Capitol, the Smithsonian Castle and other landmarks. Yet the view stands alone as a real Washington moment.

Fiber optics will enable the millions of visitors who gaze at the Hope Diamond every year to see more of it, vividly illuminating the diamond's facets as it turns in its new glass case. "This lighting gives more light and the color shows off better. You get more intensity from the color," Post explains. The Hope's new vault was donated by the Diebold Co.

In this horseshoe-shaped space, many artifacts will stop the visitor. And each careful juxtaposition tells a scientific story. "We are trying to use specimens to give information and concepts. We want the objects to be the stars. What makes this different, what makes the Smithsonian different, is that you are looking at a real object," Post says. "This is still an emotional experience."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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