mineral museum

Kearns hopes to expand the exhibit into Festival Conference Center in 2019 with security as its top priority.

Students who’ve never taken a geology class may not know that Memorial Hall houses a true gem, the JMU Mineral Museum. Cases upon cases display over 600 mineral specimens from all over the world that could fit in the palm of one’s hand or in one’s backpack. While some are shiny in luster and saturated in color, others are luminescent and glow in the dark.

The number of minerals to gaze at can be astonishing. Each hue and twinkle within the geometric shapes deserve individual attention. The museum is open to the public to view Monday through Friday 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

“If you’re a well-educated mineralogist and you’re aware of these specimens, there’s a lot of great things there for you to see,” Lance Kearns, the curator of the museum, said. “If you’re a person who really doesn’t have any background in mineralogy at all, one can still be excited about the beauty of the specimens and the wide ranging geographic sources of these specimens.”

After receiving his Ph.D. in mineralogy in 1977, Kearns began teaching at the then-Madison College as the department’s mineralogist and collection curator. Kearns had his own collection of minerals, which became the basis for today’s museum. Additionally, according to the Mineral Museum website, other initial contributions came from University of Delaware, Bryn Mawr College and multiple private collectors.

As the collection grew, former Dean of the College of Science and Mathematics David Brakke installed a secure museum to house the minerals. Kearns led the aspects that went into setting up the facility, and the museum celebrated its official grand opening in 2007.

“I’ve been retired for a little over a year, so I used to open and close it all the time,” Kearns said. “But I’ve been responsible for acquiring and placing every single mineral in that museum.”

In the introductory and general education class, physical geology, students spend a day searching through the museum’s displays working on a scavenger hunt. Lauren Cavendish, a junior anthropology major, took the class because she prefered geology over chemistry or physics.

“It was one of our first lab assignments and we were in charge of identifying certain minerals, what categories they fit in and the different characteristics of minerals,” Cavendish said. “It’s really interesting that we have a museum like this because I personally think it helps with learning. When you’re in the lab, you have the mineral examples, but to go somewhere and see what they actually look like in a nicer format helps. I would encourage people to check out.”

Kearns said the museum is organized in a specific way. On one side of the room, the cases contain non-silicate minerals, which include sulfides, oxides and carbonates such as limestone and marble. On the other side, cases hold silicate minerals like quartz, which contain silica but are subdivided by atomic structure. Then, a third category of cases are based on location of where the minerals were found. One case contains specimens from Elmwood, Tennessee, while two cases in the middle of the room contain minerals from Virginia.

Hidden in the back of the museum sits a specialty case of luminescent minerals that glow shades of green, blue and orange under ultraviolet light from Franklin and Sterling Hill in New Jersey. Examples that aren’t the highest of quality and can’t go in the museum are used for teaching purposes, a determination that Kearns makes.

“It takes experience in seeing mineral specimens, knowing where they come from, knowing whether you’re looking at a good example of that particular mineral species or a bad example,” Kearns said. “Each museum has its own flavor, so to speak, and that flavor reflects the evaluation and appraisal of the curator of the collection.”

Grant Colip, a senior geology and spanish double major and president of the JMU Geology club, says the mineral museum is his favorite spot on campus. He’s been a teaching assistant in physical geology and mineralogy classes for four semesters.

“We are incredibly fortunate to have a collection of this scale and quality because it’s just not something that a lot of universities have,” Colip said. “You don’t get to see something like this every day if you’re not in the field, so it’s a really cool opportunity to see some pretty minerals. I love teaching people about it and I could spend all day in there.”

Kearns said his favorite mineral in the collection is the Virginia Crystalline Turquoise from the Bishop Mine in Campbell County. He said it’s not the most valuable but is extremely difficult to replace because turquoise doesn’t often form crystals.

“Of all the pieces that have come out of there, everyone who has seen the piece that we have in our collection says it’s the best that has ever come out of that deposit,” Kearns said. “So therefore, we have what we think is the best specimen from an extremely unusual locality that’s not found anywhere else in the world.”

Though he’s now retired, Kearns has been a part of planning the new and much larger exhibit, which will open in the Festival Conference and Student Center in the fall of 2019. He says in the current museum, security is a serious aspect of maintenance because it contains world-class material that holds the museum to a high standard and it’ll be top priority in the new location.

“We are looking forward to a very generous donation of top quality minerals in the future from an active donor to the collection,” Kearns said. “This is one of the things that’s driving for the bigger and better mineral museum to be able to display these absolutely fantastic wonders.”

Contact Traci Rasdorf at rasdortl@dukes.jmu.edu. For more on the culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Twitter @Breeze_Culture. 

Traci Rasdorf is a Culture Editor at The Breeze from Alexandria, Virginia. She’s a junior media arts and design major with a concentration in Journalism and a minor in Writing, Rhetoric and Technical Communication.