Night at the Museum

Not far from the Museum Building is an Aladdin’s cave of crystals. Stacked vintage wooden trays contain minerals collected over 100 years and more from many countries around the world. Removing slips of aged paper scribbled with a cursive catalogue number often uncovers minerals with vibrant hues of turquoise, burgundy, coral…

There have been a number of important and large mineral collections that have been compiled and lost in Ireland. The UCD mineral collection was nearly one of these. This collection, once used for teaching, was consigned to storage. For years, some of the collection was housed in a shipping container but the Irish humidity and annual temperature fluctuations led to extensive damage. Pyrite turned into white balls of gypsum and the resultant sulphuric acid degraded mineral boxes and labels.

Old museum
UCD mineral collections used to live on Merrion Street, beside the Natural History Museum. Here are interior shots of the teaching areas in what was then the Royal College of Science for Ireland, probably soon after it was constructed in 1911 (National Museum images NMING:PG.176 and 177). Information courtesy: UCD Mineral Collection.

At the turn of this century, the first steps towards the reclamation were made when Dr. Patrick Roycroft went in search of the mineral cotterite. This very rare type of quartz with a metallic lustre is named after Ms. E Cotter who discovered it in 1874 in Rock Forest, near Mallow, Co. Cork. Only four specimens of cotterite have been found to date. As a result of Patrick’s quest, and in combination with money from The Heritage Council and help from the Natural History Museum, the mineral collection has been saved. It has now been moved to a new home in the Natural History Museum Storage for conservation and identification.

Cotterite. Image courtesy:

A tonne of work has been done from extensive cleaning to identification and establishing the provenance of each of these minerals, which has almost been exclusively achieved by volunteers like myself.

On an evening of March this year, Mathew Parkes and Patrick Roycroft opened the collection for a night in the museum. We toured the old, heavily built barracks, entering numerous cavernous rooms holding different elements of the museum collection. On a long table in the center of one of these rooms was a collection of some of the most impressive minerals, including cotterite, native silver from Glendalough, one of Ireland’s largest quartz crystals and a curious garnet from the west coast of Ireland with sunken faces and granular surface. A particularly eye-catching agate with a twin of different coloured growth centers. It’s informally referred to as the “David Bowie Agate”!

David Bowie
The “David Bowie” agate with contrasting colored growth centers. Photo credit: Lingli Zhou.

This evening set a light on Ireland’s mineral heritage and the work done to ensure its preservation. For more information about this important work visit “UCD Mineral Collection” on Facebook!

By Henry Glass, postgraduate student, Trinity College Dublin.


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