I’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.
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.
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.
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.