The Un-Rocky Road to Rock Success

Written by Robin Hansen, Curator, Minerals and Gemstones, at the Natural History Museum London.

Science has always been an integral part of my life. My dad was a science teacher, and my mum studied Science Education researching science, learning and gender. From a young age I understood that science was all around us, and that science was for everyone. My dad was interested in light and sound technology, and our house was full of old gramophones and wirelesses. My mum studied geology at university and later gemmology, so we visited local rock and gem shows, and on family picnics we would study the rocks. I was lucky to have two amazing role models and, unsurprisingly, my parents were the inspiration for my career path. Similarly, my sister chose a career in science and is a meteorologist.

Robin is one of Mineral Curators at the Natural History Museum London. © Natural History Museum London.

I grew up with a love of rocks and minerals. I remember as a young child trying to collect some mica crystals that I found in the concrete curb outside of our house, and I had my own display cabinet with polished stones and shells. When it came to university I still hadn’t decided what I wanted to do, only that it would be science so I applied for a Multidisciplinary Science degree. “Just try one unit of geology” mum said, “you might really like it!” And I was hooked, completing my degree with honours in geology.

After university I secured a graduate job as an exploration geologist in the iron ore industry, working in this role for 3 years. I planned drilling programs, spending several months of the year doing field work and supervising a team of drillers in the red dust of remote Western Australia.

Robin helps to inspire young people to get excited about minerals at events such as the Lyme Regis Fossil Festival. © Natural History Museum London.

During this time I took a holiday to Europe, visiting the Natural History Museum in London for the first time as an adult. I remember walking into the mineral gallery and thinking “Wow, how do I get a job here? Even if it is just dusting the minerals!” I spent the rest of that day and the following day walking up and down every aisle to look at each specimen on display (over 10,000!).

My (now) husband and I decided to move to London to work and travel Europe, so I left the mining world and worked as a personal assistant for a few years. The opportunity arose to work for a partnership of mineral dealers selling gorgeous mineral specimens to collectors and museums, and I jumped at the chance to work with minerals again. I was based in both England and California, USA, and travelled to different mineral exhibitions around the world. This job was an incredible opportunity to learn about the diversity of minerals and where they come from. I covered a whole range of tasks from photographing and describing minerals to sell via the website, to helping to organise and run a booth at mineral fairs. I loved that every mineral specimen was unique. For the collectors, this was their passion and there were so many different reasons that they loved and collected minerals – a systematic collection, a particular mining region and its history, a particular mineral from any location, or simply to enjoy their beauty.

A specimen of siliceous sinter, held in the collections at the Natural History Museum London. © Natural History Museum London.

To continue my learning, and following my love of colour and sparkle, I decided to study gemmology to learn more about cut gemstones, and the minerals and gem materials used to create them. It was fascinating, and added a whole new dimension to my understanding of minerals. Once cut, all the normal clues to identify minerals are gone – no crystal shape or associated minerals, and it is not possible to use any destructive techniques. Analysis is based on the gemstone’s optical properties, determined by the chemistry and crystal structure, as well as studies of inclusions within the gemstone. Gemmology brings together many aspects of science – chemistry, mineralogy, crystallography, optical physics, and analytical techniques.

 

15 years after that first visit, my dream job of Mineral Curator at the Natural History Museum became a reality. One of the curators was retiring, so I applied for the role and was thrilled to be chosen! For the last 4.5 years I have had the honour to help look after this magnificent collection. The Mineral and Gem Collection comprises around 180,000 specimens and I am interested in both the historical aspects as well as in conducting analytical research of the gems and minerals. My work encompasses many aspects of the collection’s care and management, including providing access to the collection, conducting tours, and facilitating visitors and loans. I have also been involved in several gallery redevelopment projects. There is never a dull day!


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