May 2, 2003

Snee: Treasures Abound

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The final article in a series profiling Cornell’s Hidden Treasures.

When they first see the glass display cases and sparkling rocks, students may inadvertently think that they have stumbled upon a jewelry store in the middle of a campus building. What they have really found is a treasure of different sorts: the Timothy N. Heasley Mineralogy Museum.

The Mineralogy Museum was named after the nephew of William E. Snee and donated by Katherine Snee when Snee Hall was built. However, according to Prof. William A. Bassett, geological sciences, “the bulk of the collection has been with the department [since it was created].”

The museum actually contains several small collections. These include, fluorescent minerals displayed under blacklights, gems and pieces donated by private collectors including Albert N. Podell ’58, George Kosel ’44, Allen Bassett, and Sylvester D. O’Connor. There is also a large section donated by B. Silliman, Jr., a famous collector of the 1800s.

The collection features an incredible variety of different minerals and gems. These include gold, diamonds, opals, tanzanite, coral, amethyst, sulfur and quartz. However, the displays are only “a fraction of the collection. There’s much more in drawers stored away,” Basset said.

The gems, which are showcased in the center of the room, are displayed next to samples of what the stones they came from look like uncut. Also on display are glass replicas of famous diamonds that have been found over the years. Some of these diamonds no longer exist in their original form.

“Unfortunately, diamonds are sometimes more valuable cut into smaller pieces,” Bassett explained.

Visitors to the Mineralogy Museum can also see petrified wood (which is actually entirely quartz), pseudomorphs (minerals which appear in the shape of a different mineral), historic specimens and a tiger statuette made out of tigerseye.

Bassett pointed out that students can also visit the rock gardens or see “one of the oldest fossils in North America.” One of the boulders in the garden features an imprint from a very early algal colony.

“Frankly, I think Snee Hall is one of the best buildings on campus for having displays,” Bassett said. Besides the Mineralogy Museum, there is also an operating seismograph, the cast of a Plesiosaur skeleton, dinosaur tracks and some sample fossils from the Paleontological Research Institute (PRI)’s collections.

The seismograph, which has been on display since Snee Hall was built in 1984, records very small movements of the earth, and can detect a magnitude six earthquake from anywhere in the world. “The ground is always wiggling and when an earthquake comes in we get bigger wiggles,” Prof. Bryan L. Isacks, chair of atmospheric and earth sciences explained.

Yesterday morning, the seismograph recorded an earthquake in Turkey. According to Isacks, small earthquakes are generally recorded every day or two.

The seismograph records movement on three planes. Different colors of ink show movement North and South, East and West, and up and down. While the working seismograph makes a great display piece, it is also actively involved in the teaching process. According to Isacks, “students use this [seismograph] a lot, and we interpret the records and determine where the earthquakes are.”

The Plesiosaur was an aquatic dinosaur from the early Jurrasic period, close to 180 million years ago. The plesiosaur skeleton that the cast was made from was originally discovered in England. Cornell bought the cast in the 1870s from Ward’s Natural Science Establishment of Rochester, NY. The Plesiosaur cast used to hang in the Natural History Museum that once occupied McGraw Hall. The Natural History Museum also housed other pieces from the collection and most of Cornell’s anthropology collection as well. “A lot of it was there [in McGraw Hall],” Isacks said, and added that “it’s a shame we don’t still have that.”

The dinosaur tracks consist of two large stone slabs hanging on the wall. They both feature footprints identified as being from a Brontozoum Giganteum. The fossils on display from PRI are, as Isacks put it, “just a sample” of the institute’s collections, which include everything from pre-historic clam shells, to a Mastodon skeleton. “It’s a really great teaching facility,” Isacks said. “There’s a lot of interaction.”

Snee Hall also features two smaller displays. One, called “Mineral Resources of New York,” features “sort of practicle minerals that you have in New York State,” Isacks explained. The other, “The Mysteries of Lake Cayuga,” examines the geological processes involved in the lakes formations. “The combination of [all of these displays] and PRI is some really impressive collections and some really impressive things to see,” he added.

Archived article by Courtney Potts