This display features an entire shelf of smithsonite. Contrary to popular belief, smithsonite comes from all over the world in a wide variety of shapes and colors.
Cathy Cook | El Defensor Chieftain photos

Five thousand pieces are on display in the Mineral Museum, located in the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources building on the New Mexico Tech campus. A total of at least 18,000 pieces are in the full collection. The substantial collection—smithsonite to trinitite and all the rest—has been built via donations and a visit to the museum is free.

There are exhibits on minerals from around the world and cases focused on the Trinity Site where the atomic bomb testing in New Mexico was conducted.

Visitors are greeted by massive logs of petrified wood before they even enter the building. The petrified wood is placed around the pond in front of the building. The museum had an opportunity to purchase $10,000 of petrified wood from the DoBell Ranch, outside of the Petrified Forest National Park. Quickly, the public raised funds for the wood and it was placed around the pond where the public can enjoy it. The petrified wood weighs so much that a forklift had to place the pieces.

Before placing the striking pieces in their new home, Tech’s fine arts program offered a class on shining the stones, and community members and students were able to learn stone polishing skills on the pieces.

The Friends of the Museum do annual projects, like acquiring the petrified wood, to expand and improve the museum. The 2022 project is to raise funds to purchase a piece of Sweet Home rhodochrosite from Colorado. The mineral is rare and too high in price for the museum to buy a piece.

The mineral that visitors are welcome to touch and feel.

When you enter the building itself, you’re greeted by a touch and feel specimen—a mineral that visitors are welcome to touch and feel. This particular mineral, TYPE, is quite large and a pair of googly eyes are affixed to it, giving it an open, friendly expression.

Kelsey McNamara, the mineral museum curator and x-ray diffraction lab manager, is another friendly face who will greet you in the museum.

McNamara thinks of minerals as nature’s art.

“What’s cool is that different things are pleasing to different people. Everybody has their taste, just like art,” she said.

McNamara is a sedimentologist by trade—someone who studies sedimentary rocks, weathering and erosion of existing rocks to learn about ancient landscapes. After graduate school, she worked for mineral dealers and learned more about the mineral side of things. Now she learns new things every day on the job.

“In this digital age where you can really be stuck to your phone, I think it’s important for people to be able to see the treasures of the earth,” said McNamara. “It’s a good chance for them to learn about geology and even just New Mexico. Coming here as a resident, you get to see the mineral wealth of your state and the different types of minerals.”

The x-ray lab can help people identify minerals. X-ray diffraction can identify what minerals are in rocks. Rocks are crunched into a fine powder, then x-rayed. The x-rays bounce back at different angles according to the crystals. Graphing the angle of diffraction across a certain range then matching that graph using an existing database can determine the minerals in the rock that can’t be seen by hand.

If you haven’t visited recently, you’ll be in for some new exhibits as the museum regularly updates cases.

The new items exhibit includes new acquisitions and is located near the front of the museum. Items are removed from it and added every eight months to a year. Another crowd favorite case is focused on turquoise. All of the pieces were donated by Rex Nelson of Albuquerque, whose been collecting turquoise since the 1950s.

Visitors can learn about the history of mining districts in the area. Displays on the mining districts run north to south along one wall. The districts are organized in the room, north to south based on whether the actual districts are north or south of each other. The actual Kelly Mine, which is one of the mining districts represented, is only a short drive away near Magdalena.

Tucked away in the back of the museum are three cases with member exhibits—cases curated by museum members who showcase their different passions for minerals. The current exhibits include one on micro minerals, with up-close photography that reveals the dazzling interiors of ordinary-looking rocks. There’s also a tribute to Al and Betty Tlush, a couple who offered their support to the museum after retiring from owning their own rock shop. The exhibit features Betty’s favorites—including a shelf full of different types of smithsonite.

The third member exhibit is all about petrified wood and even includes a petrified dinosaur bone.

The museum is open seven days a week except for NMT holidays. Visitors who want a museum tour can call ahead and request one, or they can guide themselves through the exhibits during their visit.

The museum can also host classroom visits or offer outreach talks for different groups.