Sunday, November 26, 2006

Musée de Minéralogie de l'École des Mines

Musee de mineralogie

This afternoon I went to visit the Musée de Minéralogie de l'École des Mines, which is to say, the Mineralogical Museum of the School of Mines. It is a rather wonderful place: a great gallery some 70m long containing breath-taking displays of rocks and minerals. The long gallery looks out through arched windows over the Jardins de Luxembourg giving the place a 19th Century air.

The collection includes some 100,000 specimens collected over a period of more than 200 years. The museum is entered via a wood-panelled staircase that has 19th Century landscapes and portraits set into the walls. Paintings of geologists and celebrated mountains like the Cirque de Garvanie to set the scene.

Inside are cases of minerals that fluoresce. Examples of peridotite in which huge chunks of different minerals sit jumbled together like massively magnified chocolate chip crunch bars. A wierd black crystal shaped like a multi-bladed science-fiction sword. White crystals that are natural Brancusi sculptures. Huge masses of sour yellow sulphur crystals. Large diamonds peeking from great black masses of kimberlite.

It is fascinating to browse the displays and learn about which minerals come from the different regions of France. But the samples come from all over the world: pink beryl from the Wha-Wha Mountains of Utah; blue beryl from the Adun Tschilon Mountains of Siberia; Wernerite from Walling Ford lake, Quebec; Chrysocolle from Etoile de Congo, Zaire; Scapolite from Adranondrambo, Madagascar; Sepiolite from the Sari Sou Mine, Anatolia.

The range of colours of the minerals is extraordinary: violet, brilliant green, scarlet, iridescent blue - as are some of the textures and patterns in the rocks: native copper dendrites, delicate silver fern-like crystals, strange spherical structures in granite. And there is plenty of information for the curious: such as the information that obsidian, a black volcanic glass, was used by the Hittites around 5000 BC to make black mirrors.

Currently, there is an exhibition about Mount Etna and the geologists who have studied it. Among them were Léonce Elie de Beaumont who made models of Etna in the 19th Century and thought that all relief on the earth's surface were organised according to a geometrical model: "the pentagonal network". There are some of his original models of the earth covered with criss-crossing lines that apparently connect centres of activity such as volcanoes.

You can find more information about the museum here.


rsaum said...

Have you read Novalis? Reputedly, he had a gnomic fascination with such things. Read this in Bachelard I think. Can't find translations of his work though.

Jonathan Wonham said...

Thank you Richard, that's an interesting link. I had noticed this name before but never investigated further. I found this summary of Novalis' writing from an essay by Thomas Carlyle:

As a Poet, Novalis is no less Idealistic than as a Philosopher. His poems are breathings of a high devout soul, feeling always that here he has no home, but looking, as in clear vision, to a 'city that hath foundations.' He loves external Nature with a singular depth; nay, we might say, he reverences her, and holds unspeakable communings with her: for Nature is no longer dead, hostile Matter, but the veil and mysterious Garment of the Unseen; as it were, the Voice with which the Deity proclaims himself to man. These two qualities, -- his pure religious temper, and heartfelt love of Nature, -- bring him into true poetic relation both with the spiritual and the material World, and perhaps constitute his chief worth as a Poet; for which art he seems to have originally a genuine, but no exclusive or even very decided endowment.

In relation to the mineralogical museum, which is mainly a vast catalogue of rocks, I liked this translated Novalis quote:

What is Nature? An encyclopedical, systematic Index or Plan of our Spirit. Why will we content us with the mere catalogue of our Treasures? Let us contemplate them ourselves, and in all ways elaborate and use them.

This is something I have been thinking about, particularly with reference to the writing of Roger Caillois who makes much use of the variety of stones to forge connections between different aspects of nature: what he called his 'diagonal' science. Relating, for example, the growth of dendritic minerals and the growth of plants.

It is intriguing to compare the work of Caillois and Novalis (a unified approach I feel that might be called mystic materialism) with that of Levi-Strauss who in fact expends most of his effort in studying what separates man from nature, i.e. culture (language, food preparation, ritual etc.)

Roads said...

That looks like a fascinating collection, thanks. I must remember to check it out next time I'm in Paris.

rsaum said...

Loved the Carlyle hyperbole. I thought there was an aspect of Novalis immersed in mineralogy - but I've glossed the translated work online and can only think it's a false lead. Your quote is interesting though.

Jonathan Wonham said...

Hello Richard. Thanks for your comment. Good to see you're posting again.