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The Fersman Mineralogical Museum, Moscow

Last Updated: 7th Dec 2018

By Jolyon Ralph

The Fersman Mineralogical Museum (RAS), Moscow

The Fersman Mineralogical Museum, Moscow

I have been very fortunate to be able to visit this museum several times over the last ten years. I have been working on this report for a very long time, and although I would still like to extend it, I would like you to be able to read what I have written now without further delay.

First, a little introduction. The Fersman Mineralogical Museum is one of the very rare pure mineral museums left - no fossils or dinosaurs, no geomorphology, just minerals, gemstones, gem artwork and stone carvings and an impressive selection of meteorites.

Rather than just telling you what exhibits the museum contains, I want to try to give you a little bit of an insight as to why this museum looks and feels so different to museums in the west and why it's possibly the best mineral museum I've ever visited.

The full history of the museum is listed on their website, so I'll just give you the abridged summary here. It was originally founded in 1716 in St. Petersburg as the mineral cabinet in the Kunstkammer (the first major museum in Russia), based on a purchase of 1195 specimens from a Doctor I.Gotvald from Gdansk (Poland), on the orders of Tzar Peter the Great.

In 1725 the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) was founded, and in the same year the Kuntskammer came under its control. In 1836 the Kuntskammer split into 7 separate museums, one of these being the Mineralogical Museum.

In 1934 the Soviet Academy of Sciences (as it was then known) transferred most of it faculties, including the museum, at this point known as the "Geochemical, Mineralogical and Crystallographic Institute", from Leningrad (St. Petersberg) to Moscow, into a building that had previously been an out-of-town dancing hall for the Tsars and their Imperial Court, and the museum remains in this building today. The most valuable parts of the collection were evacuated from the museum in 1941, and returned in 1944.

In 1955 the museum was renamed the Fersman Mineralogical Museum, after A.E.Fersman, who had been director of the museum from 1932 until his death in 1945.

The museum now contains over 135,000 specimens, with over 12,000 actually on display (a huge percentage compared with most museums).

The Galleries

The gallery layout is quite complicated, for good reason, it's probably best if I start with a floor map:

Fersman Mineralogical Museum Floor Map

What you can see here is there is no one dominant strategy for display of specimens. In most galleries there is a primary method of organisation (for example, systematic, based on mineral chemistry and crystallography) with a few additional displays tagged on for variety. At the Fersman you can see this is not the case, there is a strong systematic collection (with one of the highest species counts of any displayed collection worldwide, if not the highest), but there is far more distributed around in other cabinets organized in different ways.

Part of the reason for this variety in display themes is because they have so much material, especially good Russian minerals, that they are able to use similar specimens for different purposes - in one part of the museum a gypsum crystal may be in the systematic display, in another to illustrate minerals from evaporite deposits, and in another to illustrate the monoclinic crystal system. The key here is illustration and learning, not display.

Of course, this does mean that if you're interested in, for example, all of the russian crocoite samples that they have, you have to visit several cases within different areas to find them all. In the typical Russian way, they've got a perfect low-tech and highly effective solution to help with this, an A4 binder is left out on top of the cabinets containing an alphabetical (in Russian, of course), list of minerals and which cabinets to find them in. Other worldwide mineral museums - please do the same!

The catalogue of minerals handily left out for visitors at the museum

It took me a while to try to understand why things seemed so different here (and it wasn't just the language), but eventually I figured it out. The Fersman museum is part of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and unlike many places in the west it's budgets essentially come directly from the Academy, not from any "cultural, heritage or arts" budget. Because of this the museum is focused heavily on teaching. School trips and organized groups are key to what the museum is trying to do. Again, unlike other museums in the west, the numbers of people through the door each day hardly seem to be of a major concern to them - they would rather than 1 person comes into the museum and learns something rather than ten come through just to look at some pretty gems.

So, all this talk of education has made me want to teach YOU something, so how about learning a little Russian. Or at least how to understand the cyrillic alphabet. That will make viewing the captions in some of the pictures I'm showing a little easier. Ready? Хорошо!

There are 33 letters in the cyrillic alpahbet. They are essentially pronounced as follows. You can look at the photos and refer back to it later! Or print it out and take it with you when you visit Moscow! Note this is highly simplified, and isn't enough to get you speaking the language correctly, but it should be enough for you to be able to transliterate text you see on mineral labels.

Cyrillic Pronounciation Guide

А аSimilar to english as in 'aragonite'
Б бLike an the english 'B' - as in 'borax'.
В вDifferent to english, this is same as english 'V', as in 'vesuvianite'.
Г гLike an english 'G' - as in 'gold'
Д дLike an english 'D' - as in 'datolite'
Е еNot quite the same as english e, this is more of a 'YE' sound as in 'yellow'
Ё ёA 'YO' sound as in 'yoderite'
Ж жA 'ZH' sound similar to the 'SU' of 'pleasure', but think of 'Dr Zhivago' to get it right.
З зA 'Z' sound, as in 'zeunerite'
И иA short 'I', as in 'iridium'
Й йThis is where it starts getting hard. It's sort of like a short 'Y', as in the end of 'boy'.
К кAn easy one again, same as english 'K' sound, as in 'kaolinite', but also the C in 'calcite'
Л лLike an english 'L', as in 'liroconite'
М мSame as english 'M', 'malachite'
Н нThis will catch you out. This is the same as an english 'N', so like 'natrolite'.
О оSame as an english 'o', as in 'ore', except when it's not stressed and then it's more like an 'a' sound.
П пLike an english 'P', as in 'pectolite'
Р рYes, that means this has to be different. It's an 'R' sound, roll it if you can (I can't) - as in 'rubellite'
С сThis is an english 'S', as in 'satin spar'
Т тSame as english T, as in 'torbernite'
У уAn 'oo' (double-o) or 'uuuu' sound, as in 'boothite'
Ф фLike the english 'f' or 'ph', as in 'fluorite' or 'phlogophite'
Х хA cross between an 'H' sound and clearing phlegm out of your throat. similar to the end of scottish 'loch'
Ц цa 'TS'/'TZ'/'CZ' sound, the russian word 'czar'/'tzar' you'll know of course, and of course 'tsavorite'
Ч чa 'CH' sound, as in 'churchite'
Ш шa 'SH' sound, as in 'schorl'
Щ щa longer 'SH' sound, as in the sound a librarian might make to you if you're practicing these sounds in a library.
Ъ ъThe hard sign. You can mostly ignore it, it's hardly ever used. It means the preceeding letter is pronounced harder.
Ы ыThis is almost impossible to explain! a very short, hard 'UI' sound, the Y in 'bystrite' is similar if you pronounce it in a very russian way.
Ь ьSoft sign. Important, makes the previous symbol softer.
Э эA hard 'E' sound, as in 'epidote'
Ю юA 'IO' sound, or 'YOO' as in 'euclase', also in 'fluorite'
Я яA 'YA' sound, as in 'fayalite'

Thank you for your patience - let's put it into practice with a photo.

Cinnabar and Fluorite

Here's an example of a specimen on display. Now, you can see that they've given you the main mineral name in English, but the rest you have to work out yourself. Don't panic, it's easy. You can see the letters making up Cinnabar in cyrillic quite easily. If you think about it, the 'soft sign' at the end to make the R softer makes sense also. and underneath it says 'С Флюоритом' - the 'C' simply means 'with' in this case, and the rest is, if you use your cheat-sheat above, clearly 'Fluorite'. The 'ом' at the end is because the noun changes when it's in what's known as the instrumental case (the subject of 'with' in this example) but that's Russian grammar, which is best avoided! See if you can work out what the locality name is (hint, the country name is the shortened version preferred in Russia). Click on the photo to check. Language lesson over, back to the museum itself.

The museum galleries

You can still see the elegant surroundings of this ex-Tsarist dance hall converted into a museum. The cabinets date back to Stalin's day, although some could do with better glass (the glass is sometimes so thick and irregular that it can distort the image behind as you walk from side to side, like a fairground mirror). Despite this, the specimens are in general lit well with plenty of natural light, and displayed effectively.

Let's go through the different sections of the museum:

Minerals named after museum staff

Walking through the galleries, past some wonderful meteorites, the first cabinet we see on the main floor, on the right hand side is a display of minerals named after staff and other people associated with the museum during it's history, with photos, biographies (in Russian) and samples of species (and varietal names in some cases).

For example, here is the display for chernikovite, named after A.A.Chernikov.

Chernikovite, for A.A.Chernikov.

and further back in time, A.E.Fersman and the minerals named after him fersmanite and fersmite.

A.E.Fersman and his minerals

Minerals of the Moscow region

Next we have two cabinets dedicated to the mineralogy of the Moscow region - which is a sedimentary region with little in the way of 'exciting' mineralogy to talk of. There are nice chalcedony and agates, very attractive banded flints amongst others. Here's an example of the banded flint (this piece wasn't in this cabinet, it was in the 'Gems/Decorative stone' cabinet at the other end of the hall, but it gives you an idea what the material is like:

Banded flint, Moscow region, Russia

New acquisitions

Two cabinets by the wall near the entrance contain recent donations to the museum (the museum has no acquisition budget of its own so relies entirely on donations and it's own collecting expeditions for new material (if you'd like to donate to the museum, contact them via their website - I was especially pleased to see displayed a small sample I had given them of scorodite which I had collected from the the Hemerdon Mine, Devon, England.

Here's a selection of tourmaline crystal slices from this cabinet:

Tourmaline from transbaikal, Russian

And this is a curious new addition - in 2007 the Russians sent a scientific expedition to the North Pole - the reason was highly political, to try to gather evidence for their claim that a large chunk of the arctic is an extension of the Russian contiental plate and should therefore be under Russian control. With the potential for natural resources this is of huge significance. A mini-submarine descended to the seabed at 90 degrees north, planted a symbolic Russian flag on the seabed there and took mud samples, one of which (now dried out) is here:

North pole mud

New Mineral Species

Two cabinets on the right hand side of the museum contain a display of recently-approved mineral species, arranged by year of approval and with information (in Russian) along with samples of these new (mostly small and rare) species. This cabinet highlights the significant amount of research done by the Fersman into new mineral species, and demonstrates the ever-growing world of systematic mineralogy.

Akvalite (2007) in the New Mineral Species section

Systematic Mineralogy

The major part of the first half of the gallery is the systematic mineralogy display, with a collection of 2,400 species, the majority of which are on display, making it one of the biggest systematic collections on display anywhere. The collection is arranged in classical chemical/structural order as with most such displays worldwide. Species are mostly represented by a single specimen, less frequently two, and only rarely with three or more, presumably to maximize the space available to display such a large number of species.

Some specimens are classic Russian mineral speices, such as this crocoite from the type locality, the Berezovksoe Gold Deposit:

Crocoite on matrix, approx 10cm

This excellent ilmenite crystal is from the type locality in the Ilmen Mountains:

Ilmenite from Ilmen Mountains, Russia

And, of course, an excellent crystal of fersmanite, approx 3cm square, from Eveslogchorr Mountain, Kola Peninsula, Russia.

Fersmanite from Kola

Some classic pieces come from outside of Russia, including this exclellent phosgenite from Matlock in Derbyshire, England:

Phosgenite from Matlock, Derbyshire, England

Some are slightly less common, like this percylite from Chile:

Percylite from Sierra Gorda, Chile

Some are so rare you probably won't see them on display anywhere else in the world, such as these grains of thorosteenstrupine in a test tube:

Thorosteenstrupine from Chergilen REE occurrence, Russia

or this probe sample with konderite, a rare Copper Lead Rhodium/Platinum/Iridium Sulphide:

Konderite from Konder massif, Russia

or this single grain of malladrite, a rare Sodium Fluosilicate (the chemical name is misleading, it's not a silicate as it has no oxygen)

Malladrite from Tolbachik, Russia

You may wonder what the benefit is of showing such tiny grains of minerals in the systematic display - well, apart from the obvious curiosity value to people such as me, and the ability to have a more complete selection on display, it shows quite graphically and clearly how rare some of these minerals are, in a way that becomes obvious to even the most casual visitor.

Common minerals in Large Specimens

Not all the specimens are that tiny, along each side of the corridor are cabinets with large specimens of some of the more common minerals. For example, this fluorite from Dal'negorsk is over 25cm across.

Fluorite from Dal'negorsk, Russia

And another - huge (40cm+) group of Danburite crystals, also from Dal'negorsk

Danburite from Dal'negorsk

And this one is a large (31cm) topaz crystal from the Ukraine

Topaz from Volodarsk-Volynskii, Ukraine

Modern Mineralization

Two cabinets hold a selection of rather unusual items - things classified as 'modern mineralization', meaning crystals that have formed in recent times either directly or indirectly because of human activity. Examples include these two items made in the Czech republic, where for hundreds of years items have been left in the hot carbonate-rich springs to be 'petrified' - covered with a coating of hard aragonite. First, a rose:

Petrified rose

and from the same place, a slipper

Petrified slipper

But, possibly the most famous exhibit in the Fersman Museum, this is a mouse replaced with copper minerals, primarily atacamite and chalcanthite along with some native copper. This was apparently found in the 1980s in a long-abandoned copper mine where a mouse had allegedly died and fallen into a pool of copper-rich water.

Mouse replaced by copper mienrals

Mineral Forming Processes

An important part of the displays are the many cabinets around the hall dedicated to the different mineral forming processes, from pegmatites through evaporites to secondary enrichment. Each cabinet shows example minerals associated with the theme. Rather than going through all the themes and their meanings, which wouldn't help much because they're all listed in Russian, I'll just pick out a few photos of interesting minerals I found in these displays.

A cabinet on evaporite minerals had these gypsum crystals from Turkmenistan - the second one contains fingers of sulphur.

Gypsum from Turkmenistan

Gypsum with Sulphur from Turkmenistan

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