The human side of minerals

HOUGHTON – Chris Stefano does not deny the allure that rare mineral samples hold for enthusiasts. After all, as the new associate curator at the A.E. Seaman Mineral Museum at Michigan Technological University, he has spent much of his life devoted to learning about minerals. He does acknowledge, however, that there is more to mineral samples than just their geologic history.

“Every mineral specimen has a story and every specimen has, at the very least, a geological story and if someone dug it up it has a human story,” Stefano said. “The whole reason we find these things interesting is they have a geologic story but it’s kind of fun to look at where these things came from and look at the stories that come with them.”

During a presentation titled “Minerals with Stories: Working with Historical Mineral Specimens” Saturday afternoon, Stefano shared both the geologic and human history of several samples he has worked with throughout his career. While the geologic history of specimens first caught his attention, he became aware of the human stories after a friend purchased specimens from the Philadelphia Academy of Sciences.

While helping the friend unpack, Stefano noticed that each specimen was accompanied by a card that noted where, when and by whom the specimen was collected.

“I was just so fascinated I started spending hours on the Internet searching these people’s name and tried to find information about them and who they were,” he said.

Stefano comes to the A.E. Seaman Museum from the University of Michigan, where he was a research assistant for their collection. While at the University of Michigan, he had the chance to work with many historic collections, including specimens gathered by Douglass Houghton. Houghton was the first geology professor at the University of Michigan and took many trips to the Keweenaw to collect samples.

“Many of us recognize that name as the namesake of our town,” Stefano said. “But he also came up here and brought many different specimens back to Ann Arbor.”

Stefano also discussed specimens from the collections at the A.E. Seaman Museum, including a copper specimen from the Resolute Mining Company.

“This specimen is one of the few documented specimens from the Resolute Mine that exists and it’s probably the only good one. It was given to the Philadelphia Academy in 1860 and there’s actually a note in the proceedings of the Academy where they formally acknowledge the gift of this one specimen,” Stefano said.

“They call it a very fine native copper specimen given to them by the Resolute Mining Company. When the Academy collection was sold, a prominent friend of the museum bought the specimen – he actually sold half of his mineral collection in order to be able to buy this so that he could give it to the A.E. Seaman Museum and we’re very fortunate to have it.”

In addition to the copper specimen, Stefano discussed a new acquisition. Only a few weeks after his arrival at the A.E. Seaman Museum he was able to purchase a rare large, well-crystalized Brucite specimen from a friend who was looking to sell some pieces.

“I asked if maybe we could help him out and take this piece of off his hands at the same time. After a little bit of haggling, we struck a deal and it’s here,” Stefano said.

Stefano plans to continue collecting not only new specimens, but also oral histories of the people who collected the minerals.

“One of the things I’m really interested in doing is making scientists, making these people we tend to put up on pedestals, making them seem like real people. I think that’s really important, especially for new young people who are interested in getting into the sciences. If they start thinking that these great scientists were something like a demi-god, it becomes much more challenging for them to imagine themselves becoming scientists. If we can tell these people’s stories and show them as humans, I think it really opens things up a lot more for young people to get into the scientists and think, ‘Yes, I can be one of these people.'”

The A.E. Seaman Mineral Museum is open Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. June 1 to December 21.