A Museum with Sands
There is a collection of vials with sands on exhibit at the Science Museum of Minnesota in St. Paul. The collection includes sands from around the world that has been donated by staff and visitors and friends and brought into the museum in baggies, chip bags, pop bottles, mint tins, medicine vials, and cigarette wrappers. The sands have been collected from lakes, rivers, seas, oceans, deserts, dunes beaches, quarries, backyard sandboxes and playgrounds—green sand, red, black, white, and generic brown sands. From the ABC of countries: Argentina, Bulgaria, Canada, Denmark, Ecuador, Fiji, Greece . . . and every state in the US—nearly 1000 samples and ever growing!
This case showcases a small number of the sands on exhibit at the museum. Stereo microscopes are used for viewing sands. Photograph by Kate Clover
The sand collection is displayed in the museum’s Collectors’ Corner, a trading post where visitors of all ages can trade their found objects from nature for other things —rocks, shells, skulls, bones, insects, and yes—sands. Traders are awarded points for their objects and their knowledge, and then they can use their earned points to “purchase” other things. It’s a successful program. The program encourages people to engage in science in their homes, parks and in their travels and to dig a little deeper to broaden their knowledge of the world. The program engages learners at their own level and encourages life-long, life-wide and life-deep learning. http://www.smm.org/visit/collectorscorner/
In addition to trading sands, visitors can use stereo microscopes to examine sands and view poster-size photographs of sands magnified 225 times. The photos by Dr. Gary Greenberg (www.sandgrains.com) illustrate the stunning beauty and intricate nature of sea urchin spines, glass sponge spicules, shells and forams as well as colorful mineral grains. Visitors stand in awe in front of the photographs and comment about the diversity of colors, textures and mineral or biological grains. At the display of vials, they seek to locate their hometown beaches and favorite beach vacation destinations. Foreign visitors look for sands from their home countries.
Dr. Gary Greenberg’s photograph of sand on display in the Collections Gallery at the Science Museum of Minnesota. Photograph by Kate Clover
Gallery manager Kate began to assemble the sand display from her personal collection in December 1999. Initially, museum staff expressed skepticism about the sand display idea, but today, it’s a visitor favorite within the museum. Everyone has some experience with sand, and looking at sand under a microscope offers a new way to explore and understand a region’s geology or marine ecology.
Why do people collect? I believe our inquisitive nature is behind our impulse to collect objects. In collecting, we try to make sense of the rocks, shells or sands and their place in the geological or biological history of the earth. Maybe this learning doesn’t happen at first, but the more one collects, the more one sees the variables and begins to ask questions: why? where? how? Our goal at the museum’s trading post is to encourage learning and to instill a value to the scientific significance of the things kids collect. Science is about observing; it’s fun, exciting and engaging. The objects in our collections teach.
Heavy mineral sand from Lake Winnibigoshish, Minnesota
Mention Lake Winnibigoshish, more commonly known as Lake Winnie, to Minnesotans and you’re likely to hear fishing tales of northern pike, walleye, bass and muskellunge—not sand.
This stunning photograph of sand grains from Lake Winnibigoshish in north-central Minnesota shows the vivid, exquisite beauty that sand grains can show when viewed under the microscope. Many of these grains are garnets, miniature gems!
Sand from Lake Winnebigoshish, Minesota. Photograph by Dr. Gary Greenberg. Used with permission.
These sand grains originated billions of years ago in the rocks of northern Minnesota and Canada. After as many as a million years and multiple cycles of weathering and transportation, the rocks have broken down into rounded grains like we see in this photograph. This sand was most probably collected from a dark swath on the beach where the action of the waves naturally concentrates denser minerals like garnet and magnetite.
Grains in this Sand
• Garnets: This sample includes both pink and orange garnets.
• Quartz: Quartz grains in this sample are colorless to cloudy white, rounded and polished.
• Magnetite, Ilmenite, and Hematite: These iron minerals appear opaque and range from black to red. Along with hornblende (which also appears black), these minerals make up nearly half the sand grains.
• Epidote: The pistachio-green grains are epidote.
• Diopside: The dark glassy green grains are diopside.
• Zircon: The faceted bluish grain near three o’clock is likely a zircon.
The Rock Hard Café features an eclectic menu.
There’s some whimsy at the Collectors’ Corner too. Check out platters of food at the Rock Hard Café where spilled ice water is depicted with calcite rhombohedrons and a sheet of mica, azurite nodules are blue berries, and green olivine sand is guacamole served with ribbed cockle shell chips. There’s more sand in the spice rack too: yellow sand “curry,” red sand “paprika,” white sands “salt”, black sand “pepper,” generic brown sand “cumin.” Next time you’re in town, check out our Rock Hard Café!
[Kate and I began our virtual conversation after I had posted a Sunday Sand piece on Easter Island. She sent me a photo from her collection of a very different sand from the island – clearly volcanic fragments from the rocks that the island is built from. I discovered that she runs this great program at Minnesota’s Science Museum and asked if she would write a guest post, which she did – many thanks, Kate! And please note that Through the Sandglass would be delighted to host other guests – the more the merrier, so don’t hesitate to get in touch.]