The Problem with ‘Condition’ in Geological Collections

Does a crack matter? We know a painter (assuming that he’s not into new-modern-post-wierdness art) didn’t paint his mural with a cracked hole in the middle of it, but can we say the same for minerals? Why would it matter anyway? To someone viewing a mural, an essential piece of the story is missing, but with a mineral the exact chemical formula (lets not get technical here for those of you who are know-it-all’s, let’s make it simple!) is repeated everywhere, so what are we missing?

The term ‘in perpetuity’ is complex. To preserve something exactly as it is for ever is impossible, a problem all conservators and curators will be intimately familiar with. In heritage collections it is a fact that objects will become more fragile with time and the institution holding them will do their best to ensure the object is in the best condition relative to its original state (i.e. a solid, liquid or gas – a nice definition offered by Jonathan Ashley-Smith in one of our course lectures). This process may involve preventive conservation measures to ensure that the possibility of common problems affecting the condition, referred to as degradation, is limited. One of the first steps to carrying out preventive conservation is condition assessment.

In geological collections, you immediately come across some complex aspects regarding condition. To what state would we attempt to conserve this specimen – the time at which it was first formed on the surface of the earth or the point at which it enters a collection? How do we know that state unless we have documented evidence? Of course, in other heritage collections it is often possible to speculate about the original state, we assume what ceramic jars, oil paintings and tapestries should look like when they are first made. In these types of heritage collections it is also less difficult to say whether there has been alteration to the original state, dulling of a painting, breakage of ceramics or fraying of a tapestry all involve loss of an object’s integrity. When it comes to a geological specimen it is difficult to quantify where or when there is loss of integrity. Is it when it breaks, dulls, the label becomes damaged or all three? Even unlike other natural history collections where a beetle specimen may lose a wing and with it vital biological information, in geological collections defining state and detrimental alteration to an original state is difficult and may be impossible!

Although you can in some cases i.e. light degradation possibly get the ‘original’ mineral’s colour back, how applicable is this for condition assessments? I would say not very, since it should not be a time-consuming process. It may be possible to eventually make a comprehensive list of all the original colours of minerals with this problem, but then again who says this is the ‘pre-defined’ state you wish to assess from?

If the use of a specimen is to sit in a box all the time then fading is not a problem, but if you need these specimens for display or education their condition may drop – then again for a researcher the colour might not matter, and the crystal lattice and the chemical structure is more important. For a painting, it may be more important to see the original brushwork, the colours and vibrancy that the artist intended to appreciate the true meaning behind the image. For this to happen we need a starting point, an original state from which to infer condition, and then begin our conservation efforts.

What is my point?

Well, first off condition in geological collections should be measured with respect to the use a specimen is meant for. But secondly, can we even technically measure condition in geological collections at all? Is it possible to decide on an abstract original state for a mineral and assign condition accordingly? Then, how can we make these kinds of results comparable between collections or museums? Should there be some sort of globally defined original state for each mineral? Really, this is implausible and unlikely. Even if we can take a mineral back to its original colour, is that useful? What we want to know is how good it is for the uses we need it for – research, education, display. Just because a mineral specimen is not like it was when it came out of the ground does not make it automatically in bad condition, but it does throw up some interesting conceptual barriers to condition and its definition.

Tell me your thoughts on ‘condition’ and geological collections: leave a comment below!


3 thoughts on “The Problem with ‘Condition’ in Geological Collections

  1. minerals when they are found are intrinsically dirty. Some museums leave them more or less like this and then show them to the public in this dirty state. I cannot except the argument this is how they were found because they were not found like this. Usually minerals are found in clayey iron oxide stained cavities and on removal the clay dries out and some of the iron oxide flakes and dries off.
    To my mind all mineral specimens should be cleaned to show their best. It is only when this is achieved does Jane or John smith become interested. Dirty specimens may appeal to the dedicated, but if a collection is to appeal to a much wider audience then the specimens concerned must be pristine.
    An example here is Quartz. When it is found it is contaminated with the impurities reffered to previously, only by careful cleaning can the true beauty of it be appreciated.

    • Hi John, thanks for your comment! I agree that for collections to appeal to wider audiences they need to be looking their best, and for me public engagement with geology is something I am passionate about. When you mention quartz it is an interesting one, as ‘impurities’ could maybe be something likt rutile inside the crystals which technically are stunning to look at! I think that this is proof that when thinking about geological/mineralogical collections a standard view of ‘any impurities/cracks or similar are ‘bad’. But there is a difference between appreciating the ‘original’ specimen that is ‘untouched’ because it is a scientific tool and the aesthetics that can be uncovered with even just a bit of water.

      • Whilst I agree with some of your comments,in my experience Rutile crystals generally occur within the crystal and are infrequently (in the UK) on the outside. Incidentally we have found stunning Rutile crystals associated with quartz from Central Perthshire!
        No most of the Arkansas quartz and the best of the British Isles Quartz( we have found crystals over 9 inches long from Co.Kerry),are all covered in a hard red -brown iron oxide.
        It can only be removed by Chemical treatment, but the results show that our Irish quartzes are up there with the best from the Alps, so to leave these in their original dirty condition as I saw at a recent museum display was very disappointing!

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