Sparkly Stuff

DiamondsI’d been looking forward to the San Diego Natural History Museum’s new exhibition, “All That Glitters,” because I know that San Diego is a special place when it comes to jewels. I’ve read authorities who say more gems (and more valuable gems) have been dug out of the ground here than any other place in North America. Spectacular specimens from here can be found in some of the greatest natural history museums on the planet.


Jade from Northern California

The local museum used to have a “Josephine L. Scripps Hall of Mineralogy” (inaugurated in 1991 and named after one of the museum’s great patrons and mineralogists) that told at least part of this story well. But when the museum expanded in 2001, the mineralogical exhibits paradoxically disappeared.  I’d been hoping the new exhibition would again draw attention to the fabulous mineral wealth and history once found here, but I walked away from a visit yesterday disappointed.


Our local gold-mining history gets the briefest nod

Tourmaline elephant

Elephant carved of pink tourmaline mined here

Those who like bling for bling’s sake might not be. “All That Glitters” offers case after case of pretty jewels and impressive rock specimens.  But the vast majority of it comes from elsewhere. There’s a huge rubellite-studded crystal from Brazil, a polished iron meteorite slab from Namibia, Australian opals, Japanese pearls, turquoise from Arizona, peridots from Burma. But only a small amount of display space pays attention to the riveting local history. A few panels refer to the gold rush that developed around Julian in the late 1800s.  One case holds examples of the carved pink tourmaline coveted by the infamous Chinese dowager empress Cixi Taihou and discovered in San Diego’s hills in the 1880s, igniting a blaze of local mining and lapidary activity. (The empress goes unnamed, though, and the wrong year is given for her death.) A film clip purporting to show “a visit to a local gem mine” particularly annoyed me. It looked like it was shot 30 or 40 years ago; no date or specifics were given. Another note suggests that “many local pegmatite mines” are still operating. To my knowledge, that’s not true. 

Jewels in museums often draw big crowds. Think Faberge eggs (and indeed “All That Glitters” includes an egg-like representation of the Balboa Park merry-go-round). The current effort feels like it’s pandering to that appetite. Even the attempts to communicate the science of mineralogy are confusing.

Carousel egg

The park carousel, in egg form

I did see one wall note hinting that the new exhibition is just “the first step toward creating a new exhibit that will fulfill” Josie Scripps vision and legacy. I hope so.  That vision and history deserve better.

About Jeannette De Wyze

Jeannette has worked as a journalist in San Diego since 1974. In 2007 she diversified, founding San Diego Insider Tours, a vehicle for showing visitors the special things that make San Diego unique.
This entry was posted in Looking Back in Time, Museum offerings, San Diego gems and mining. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Sparkly Stuff

  1. I don’t think they were expecting a local expert. That’s bad to have the facts wrong.

  2. Hallie says:

    Hi, my name is Hallie and I work in the Marketing Department at the San Diego Natural History Museum. I saw your blog post, and I wanted to thank you for visiting the Museum and taking the time to give your readers your opinion. I am sorry that you were disappointed with the exhibition. It seems you had some expectations that were not met, and we understand that we cannot please everyone all the time. However, I wanted to respond to a few of your points from your post.

    The exhibition was designed to have general appeal for a wide audience including children and adults, men and women, from many cultures. Some people really like seeing the “bling,” so we wanted to provide that along with the scientific and historical information. The purpose of All That Glitters is to kindle public interest in gems and minerals; to inform them generally about the gem and mineral wealth in California (and in specifically San Diego County) and to give them clues about how gems and minerals are formed and used.

    As you mentioned, this exhibition was designed as an “appetizer” to whet the appetite for the main course—a permanent mineral science gallery that will focus on the history of mining gold and gems in San Diego County. We are planning to create such a gallery in the near future and we hope you come back to check that out.

    Also, please contact me if you are interested in taking a trip out to the Pala mines where you can put your hand inside a pegmatite pocket. We can get you a complimentary pass. Again, thank you for writing this review, as we really do listen to and appreciate our visitors’ opinions.

  3. admin says:

    Hi Hallie,
    Thanks so much for your comments. I appreciate the difficulty of pleasing everyone, and I can understand why the exhibition was positioned as it was. But I’m delighted to hear your reassurance that a permanent mineral science gallery focusing on the history of gold and gem mining in San Diego County will be created soon. We have such a rich history here. It makes me sad that more people aren’t aware of it.

    Rest assured that when it opens, I will eagerly be among its first visitors!