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Does anyone else think the AMNH displays are lacking?

Posted by Greg Kokolus  
Greg Kokolus December 16, 2014 09:06PM
My wife and I went to NYC for a getaway and one of the stops was the AMNH to see the mineral wing.
I hate to say this, but the word that comes to mind is "dowdy".
Not only for it's dated appearance, but just in the area of general housekeeping.
There was a Realgar that had started to disintegrate and rain orange powder on the specimens below, missing or burned out R40 bulbs in the highhat lighting, the uv lights being at least half off in the fluorescent display and many more things showing a seeming lack of maintainance.
I am usually prettty good at playing "name that mineral" but my radar was really off when I looked at the displays.
After a point, I came to the realization, that the lighting or lack thereof was to blame.
I understand that certain minerals are light sensitive, but certainly not an entire collection.
I thought that the majority of displays were vastly ill-lit or under-lit.
I saw some remarkable pieces, but certainly not what I would of thought of for a museum of this caliber.
Anyone feel similarly having been there?
Vitaliy December 16, 2014 09:13PM
Greg interesting that you should mention the realgar. I have seen pictures of it and it has literally crumbled into dust and seems to be on other displays as well. Here are some pictures that I have seen I am not sure if they are all from the same museum though:


If these are all from the same museum it surprises me that the museum curators and administration staff didn't take better care of a particularly light sensitive mineral such as this. I wonder how long these displays of Realgar were there and how long it took for it to decompose and crumble into the current state.

Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 12/16/2014 09:13PM by Vitaliy M..
Greg Kokolus December 16, 2014 09:52PM
You are absolutely correct.
Those are pictures of the AMNH Realgar to which I refered.
Jasun D. McAvoy December 16, 2014 09:55PM
Not only is that a bummer to see, it has been like that for a VERY long time...

I still like going there, and I go there often, but only because it is close by. The museum definitely needs some updating and proper upkeep in my opinion...
Gary Weinstein December 16, 2014 10:01PM
The last time I was there was just after the 2 dinosaur halls were completed, after being shut down for years. Unfortunately for us mineral people, that is where the public awareness is. Also they have done an amazing job with the Rose center for Astronomy. What got me in the mineral section, besides the aforementioned, was the layer of dust on the large aqua crystals which are behind glass. It is not the job of the curator to clean the displays. They are in need of more volunteers.
Bob Harman December 16, 2014 10:32PM
Unfortunately Jasun and Gary's assessments are correct. When I visit family in my former home of NYC, I visit this and other museums. While I always was impressed with the AMNH specimens, I always have been unimpressed with their dreary displays in the Hall of Gems and Minerals. I guess they have long considered this area low priority for renovations and upgrading. Maybe, now that display quality minerals are really in vogue someone will step up with a large donation specifically focused on this section of the museum. CHEERS……..BOB
Vitaliy December 16, 2014 10:33PM
I personally haven't been to this museum but seeing these displays it clearly shows that the public focus and awareness is on dinosaurs and on anything else that is more 'interesting' to the public. Natural sciences takes a back-seat approach or lower priority.

Let me put this into perspective. In the early 2000's I visited Eastern European countries and also ex-USSR member countries and their museums were better cared for even in the natural sciences departments/wings. This is currently 2014 (almost 2015 now) and to see that kind of decay and decomposition from exhibited specimens in a well known museum in America is beyond disappointing. If museums in former Soviet member countries can take care of their specimens even recovering from the collapse of the Soviet Union can then why can't a well known and better funded museum. I believe also Rock Currier recalled that the AMNH was one of the very few museums that didn't allow him to take pictures without paying a fee so that is another negative strike.

Edit: Wikipedia also has this photo of Realgar decomposed and I believe it is the same display as AMNH:

Edited 2 time(s). Last edit at 12/16/2014 10:38PM by Vitaliy M..
Paul Siegel December 16, 2014 11:05PM
Sadly, it has been like this for years. I remember when Vince Manson redesigned the mineral collection display to its present configuration. He's probably rolling over in his grave given the poor upkeep.
Vitaliy December 16, 2014 11:30PM
I also noticed some of the dates on these pictures are from 2003/2008 that I have provided above. It seems that in over 11 years and 6 years respectively the specimens are still in the decayed state and Greg's recent visit confirms that.
Jake Harper December 17, 2014 01:44AM
Hey Greg,
Did you get a chance to examine the giant topaz crystal "touch" specimen on the top of the stairs? Brought out by Allen Caplan in the 1930's, it features a beautiful modified pyramidal termination and is lit at the base allowing the viewer to closely examine its limpid translucency including wispy veils and other beautiful internal details. That one crystal makes my trips to the AMNH worth it every time.


All knowledge is vain, except where there be work
All work is empty except where there be love
Keith Compton December 17, 2014 02:06AM
Perhaps these messages should be forwarded to the curator of the museum to be actioned upon.

Afterall, it would not take much time, effort or cost for that matter to either replace the specimen, or slightly change the exhibit. Perhaps someone just needs to go to the "storeroom" for a replacement !!



Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 12/17/2014 02:06AM by Keith Compton.
Alfredo Petrov December 17, 2014 02:55AM
The mineralogy department is not necessarily to blame in this case. Venerable large old institutions have other problems, including cumbersome bureaucracies, and unions. I heard a rumor once that mineralogy department staff can not even open one of the mineral cases without applying for permission from people outside the department. So even replacing a burned out light bulb might require getting permission from higher authorities to unlock the case, and those authorities might have to schedule a committee meeting first to vote on whether to allow it, along with coordination with the case-builders union, and the electricians union to change the bulb, and all parties would have to reach agreement on a date and time for getting together to do this, and hopefully none of those people call in sick on that appointed date.... Perhaps I'm exaggerating. :-S
Jake Harper December 17, 2014 03:44AM
I think there could be a "glass half full" way of looking at that AMNH realgar:

All knowledge is vain, except where there be work
All work is empty except where there be love
Paul Brandes December 17, 2014 03:58AM
Alfredo hit the nail on the head! And not only for the AMNH, but for most earth science museums or any museum that has any sort of science display in general. Not only are bureaucracies partially to blame (and trust me, I work in state government), but also cuts in museum funding mean a lack of qualified people to maintain and support any new projects. Sadly, I fear this will be an ongoing problem for years to come.
John Magnasco December 17, 2014 05:55AM
It's a shame they can't do better with the huge budget, big slaries and relatively strong profits.

AMNH faqs financial data

Cheers from NorCal, John

"God gave me the stubbornness of a mule and a fairly keen scent." - Einstein
Rock Currier December 17, 2014 06:22AM
The displays of the American Museum of natural history are disgraceful, but certainly are not uniquely disgraceful. I think of them as symptomatic of the general disfunctionality that we find in many american institutions like our health care system or our government. It reminds me of the many jokes about how many people of the ethnic persuasion of your choice does it take to screw in a light bulb.

Rock Currier
Crystals not pistols.
D Mike Reinke December 17, 2014 06:32AM
I appreciate both your comments, especially the first one. That topaz was/is mind blowing! I was there the first and only time , and that is what I remember. The gigantic stibnite too; Was almost scary to see they get that big. I don't remember the yellow stain.
But I have been to 2 other museums' mineral displays that had a noticeable number of their lights turned off. Most disappointing, part of the Albert Chapman collection in Sydney! I went to the reception desk when done, commended them on how fantastic it was but asked whether it was an oversight that the lights were not on in part of one room.
Electricity is expensive, but at least have the lights set to a motion detector, to lite up when people are near that display, c'mon!

John Sobolewski December 17, 2014 06:38AM
The mineral exhibit at the AMNH has been like this for years, but it is not the only one. A couple of weeks ago I was in Madrid and went to the Museum of Natural History there to see the mineral exhibit. I left after about 10 minutes. They seem to have a nice collection but most of the specimens were difficult to see because of very poor lighting. The lights are badly misaligned
causing bright spots between specimens and leaving the specimens in the shadows. John S.
Christopher O'Neill December 17, 2014 07:04AM
I remember the original mineral display from back in the late 1960's. Rows and rows and rows of of wooden glass display cases with thousands of minerals. Gee, I wish I understood then, what I understand now...

And of course their large highlighted displays such as the Topaz, Jade, giant Bisbee Malachite/Azurite etc.

Nearly all of those systematic or reference specimens are no longer available for public display. I heard you can put in a request to somehow privately view these specimens, but most folks don't even know they exist.

As a NYC boy, the AMNH was once a place where I would venture to explore whenever I got the chance - and now I wouldn't bother at all. I almost don't regret chipping off (OK, I was 10 or 11 or 12 years old) pieces of the Cape York "Ahnighito" meteorites, brought back from Greenland by Peary in 1897 - we used dimes to pry off small chunks. Still got em......

I understand that the museum has to "change with the times" and is restrained with expenses and space, but what is on display now is but a shadow of what once was available to the public
OLIVIER MEVEL December 17, 2014 07:05AM
Whereas in Paris the visits are worth
School of Mines, Jussieu gallery (ex-Sorbonne)..
AND the gallery in NHM Paris is reopening in 2 DAYS !!!! after years of renovation ...
"Opening of the exhibition "Treasures of the Earth" December 19, 2014.
During a stroll in the Jardin des Plantes, your steps will lead you to the Gallery of Mineralogy and Geology along the driveway Haüy. Behind the splendor of the roses garden, this neoclassical building 187 meters long, enhanced by two columned porticos, long closed for renovation, is now opening with the "room of Giant Crystals" to host the exhibition "Treasures of the Earth".
Come to France !!!

Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 12/17/2014 12:07PM by OLIVIER MEVEL.
Alfredo Petrov December 17, 2014 08:48AM
The biggest display crime is that many museums do not allow their own mineral curator to decide how the cases will be set up and illuminated - That job is given to some kind of artist/decorator who apparently knows nothing about minerals! ...all in the name of being "modern" or "relevant" or whatever the current buzz word is.

I visited one museum where the mineral shelves (frosted glass) were backlit from below!!!! So the viewers' eyes are just overwhelmed by all the light coming up from the spaces between the minerals, and the top of the mineral specimens themselves, which is what I'm trying to look at, is hidden in shadow, lost in the glare. Apparently no one gets fired for these atrocities. The board of directors is happy that their display now looks avant-garde, and they think that's what the public wants to see - avant garde displays. Or more likely the bloody interior decorator they hired was a nephew of one of the board members. Welcome to the real world. But don't blame the poor curator - He had nothing to do with it.
John Montgomery December 17, 2014 11:10AM
Thanks for that tip OLIVIER MEVEL... we plan to visit Paris next May 2015... will def check that out...It would be great to get more tips for best mineral museums etc. to visit in England, Spain and Holland from members
Thanks in advance
Roy Starkey December 17, 2014 11:25AM
As stated above, this is a problem not unique to the AMNH. One can see examples of poor display design, unsympathetic display technique and materials, ineffective lighting and labelling, and lack of curatorial input, across the world of mineralogical (and other) museums. The most frustrating thing about modern museum gallery design is that it tends to follow a continuing trend of "dumbing down" and lack of content for the enthusiast or intelligent adult. Museums should be about education and information, and most especially objects - not merely "edutainment" as it is sometimes called. Alfredo mentions the display of mineral specimens (with an interesting upper surface) on under-lit / back-lit glass so that you cannot see the detail - perhaps he refers to this display (mentioned in an earlier Mindat article) http://www.mindat.org/article.php/1289/National+Museum+of+Scotland,+Edinburgh,+Re-visited

I presented a poster at the Mineralogy and Museums Conference in Dresden in 2012 (see image) which aimed to kindle an international debate and some action on this general theme. There was much support from delegates, but this was really a case of "preaching to the converted" - we all need to do whatever we can to encourage more thought in the design of museum displays. It is inappropriate that design practitioners should be able to over-rule the subject specialists, but we see examples everywhere.

Another recent, and very sad example is the "improvement" of the previously excellent displays at the Killhope Lead Mining Museum in Northern England, which are now reduced to little more than a "sideshow", whereas previously they were strong on educational content and factually accurate - sadly no longer the case. To quote the press release issued at the time "The change really is dramatic and anyone who has visited Killhope before will be amazed at the difference." See http://www.killhope.org.uk/Pages/killhopeshowpressrelease.aspx?PID=1bvA4H50CHs=

Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 12/17/2014 11:25AM by Roy Starkey.
open | download - The Good, the Bad and the Ugly poster - Mineralogy and Museums, Dresden 2012.jpg (987 KB)
Rudy Bolona December 17, 2014 01:17PM
I was at the AMNH ten years ago and I remember the realgar. Crumbling to powder. The display does illustrate what happens to this mineral under light and maybe they have chosen to emphasize this. Even ten years ago I noticed that there was a lack of maintenance throughout the mineral hall.
Michael Croxell December 17, 2014 01:35PM
When I was there 3 years ago noticed the poorly maintained minerals displays. One case I recall the lights were off or bulbs burned out. While there really wanted to see the Native American collection...no lights on anywhere...are they that short on money?
Harold Moritz December 17, 2014 02:45PM
Like Christopher O'Neill, my first visit to the AMNH mineral hall was when there were free standing wood and glass cabinets, which I remember more than the minerals (our family probably has photos from that trip). Then in the late 70s, then completely revamped not just the displays, but the whole place had the carpeted, multi-level, and somewhat dark exhibit room but contrasted with bright displays, and those large specimens you could touch. It was fantastic when new, and I've still got photos from that trip. But I am shocked that absolutely nothing has been upgraded since then. Though the majority of the minerals are fabulous, they have been sitting in their displays literally for over 35 years getting dusty, etc., and that room is totally worn down and dated. I don't want to think about what is residing in that carpet...and the display area is not easy to find! Great that the dinosaurs and planetarium area have been upgraded, but it is long past the time for fixing the mineral hall. The mineral displays at the New York State Museum in Albany, at Carnegie in Pittsburgh, in Denver, Houston (though their labeling is completely messed up still - here you'll really have fun playing "name that mineral") and the Perot Museum in Dallas (also with the best fossil exhibit I've seen), to name a few, are all better. Though much smaller, Yale-Peabody in New Haven has recently upgraded theirs, and Harvard in Cambridge is planning to. Even Amherst College in Mass. has an excellent display. C'mon, AMNH, you have a lot of catching up to do.
Kelly Nash December 17, 2014 03:12PM
I visited with a well-known mineral dealer in NYC shortly after the opening of the Rose Planetarium in 2000, who supplied and traded with AMNH over many years. He told me at that time the annual budget for the mineral wing was tiny - less than $20,000. The museum directors disparaged minerals "because they were never alive". That sentiment reminds me of the regard that the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia had for their mineral collection, shortly before selling off the bulk of it. I don't think things have deteriorated nearly to that point yet at AMNH, and I still enjoy visiting the museum. There are many great and unique regional specimens, and the lighting, while not up-to-date, is not terrible.

The Dallas museum has a state-of-art lighting and many large, stunning, specimens ("eye candy"). The LED spots are "tuned" to wavelengths designed to maximize the appeal of each specimen. When I last visited during the Mineral Collecting Symposium, one of the consultants to the museum called it "perhaps the greatest luxury mineral collection in the U.S., and possibly the world". That's their niche, and part of the trend of treating minerals like art objects.
Van King December 17, 2014 03:20PM
The AMNH audio tape that plays in front of the Franklin mineral case talks about the "currently operating" Sterling Mine in Ogdensburg! The mine has been closed for nearly 30 years. Even the Sterling Hill Mining Museum has been in business for about 20 years. As has been mentioned, exhibits departments derive the salary for its employees from the fees they can charge the other departments! Without major departmental $$$, the curators can only helplessly watch as their exhibits crumble. As it is, the AMNH received black star reviews from the public as well as the cognoscenti when the new mineral exhibit replaced the old, but that was also a problem at the British Museum of Natural History. Their most egregious case was an attempt at having a "wow" exhibit of treasures, but the specimens were put in a flat case with lights on the sides and specimens casting dark shadows on the interior specimens. The old BMNH exhibit space is still much better than their exhibit department's amateurish attempt to be "modern".

Best Wishes, Van King
Spencer Ivan Mather December 17, 2014 04:31PM
It is the same in the Birmingham museum natural history department, a lot of the mineral displays have been put back into the basement, lot of them have the wrong names on them, and I know this because I gave them a lot of mineral specimens in the 170's- 80s, and their excellent jewellery display with a 20mm x 16mm cushion cut Russian alexandrite have been given to the University of Birmingham, which has still not gone on display since 2005, I think that it is totally disgusting...

Uwe Ludwig December 17, 2014 04:31PM
Our Mineral Club had the opportunity to visit the NHM London and, of course, the mineral collection. A very rich collection with a lot of excellent specimens which were good presented, without the a.m. "modern" nonsense.

However we saw a relatively big Proustit-specimen of our region coming from Lauta near Marienberg. This specimen was probably a wonderfull one in the past. But this specimen was situated near a window to the south looking as a piece of coal now. We all had tears in our eyes when we left. Besides that we recognised that some of the specimens of our region had no correct locations on their labels.

Uwe Ludwig
Tony Nikischer December 17, 2014 04:43PM
I have sent the thread to the AMNH in the hopes it will receive some attention.

Growing up in New York, I was a frequent visitor to the minerals section, and it was there that David Seaman (a science assistant at the AMNH in the 1960s) showed this little kid the effects of HCl on calcite vs. dolomite vs, aragonite as we tried to identify an unknown I had brought in. Imagine: a museum employee willingly handling acid with a little kid present in a side room at the museum! Impossible today, certainly, but an unforgettable learning experience for me. I have a warm spot in my heart for the AMNH, despite its perceived shortcomings.

Yes, the old displays showed lots of uncommon minerals in rather spectacular specimens, but in defense of the "new" arrangement executed years ago, it was a dramatic visual improvement. Let's hope there is the will and energy to cut through the red tape to spruce up the displays.
Uwe Kolitsch December 17, 2014 05:19PM
> The museum directors disparaged minerals "because they were never alive".

Now such an argument is just tragic...
Fred E. Davis December 17, 2014 05:39PM
Tragic? Yes. Unique? Sadly, no. An old New England college had a large natural history collection, including many fine minerals most from the 19th century. They wanted to establish a natural history museum, which they did some years later. The new director was a biologist, so the minerals remained boxed up in a barn. Decades later, the minerals were still in the barn, so the minerals were given to another University in the Northeast. Not long ago, I stopped by their "natural history" museum and asked if they had any minerals on display. After puzzling over my question (Minerals? Like vitamins and ... ), the answer was "No."
George Harlow December 17, 2014 07:50PM
We are very much aware of the deficiencies that have been raised in this forum about the Guggenheim Hall of Minerals and Morgan Hall of Gems at the AMNH. As scientific staff, we have very limited influence over exhibition issues, even if related to display of specimens in our collection in the 38 year old halls. Keeping all the halogen lamps on in all the exhibition cases in these Halls, which have more lamps than anywhere else in the institution, is a never ending challenge. We have begun replacing the MR16 halogen bulbs with LEDs, but it is slow going as there is no budget to do this. As for the diseased realgar in the systematic mineralogy area, I can report that yesterday (16DEC14) we completed removal of the realgar and its pararealgar offspring and installation of an un-diseased specimen after having replaced the lighting with UV-free LEDs. Other significant problems probably await a renovation or replacement of the Halls, which actually is a topic under consideration.
Rudy Bolona December 17, 2014 08:07PM
It seems minerals always get short-changed in museums. Dinosaurs are what get programmed into young minds. A real knowledge of what minerals are and all the aspects about them such, chemistry, locality and history, etc... are required in order to really appreciate them, otherwise you are just looking at a pretty or weird rock. Which is the perception of the majority of people who attend mineral displays in museums. We, here at Mindat, are the minority who understand and love minerals, so we feel bad when museums drop the ball when it comes to minerals.
Dana Morong December 17, 2014 08:56PM
Alfredo's comment about bureaucracies may be the case. Just recently I was able to read an article in a mineralogical magazine from the September 2013 issue (yes, 2013, not this year) because the college library took months to put a "pocket" in its back (an addition to the issue that had come with the issue, but not attached), so it took that long to get onto the shelves. I had asked about it months ago and they said they had to get someone who knew how to put a pocket in its back (actually, someone there expressed disbelief why it should take so long to do such a simple thing), so it was in some desk drawer somewhere (and now the "pocket" is open on the out-side, so how effective is it anyway?). And whereas I once sometimes gave donations (once I gave an issue of a magazine that had been missing from their collection, and they were most gracious in receiving it), the last time I got in contact with apparently some political hack that didn't want to do anything, just made foolish excuses, so I didn't donate anything more there.

Another interesting thing about this library is that they don't maintain the photocopy machines, and one may go for months making big smudge marks all over the pages. I have heard that they have to get specialists to come in for that (I was using one once, and met the specialists, and showed the specialists how to do something that some librarian had shown me how, but this was new to these specialists). A couple years ago the payment system didn't work, so for a few weeks they made it free. However, when they put the machines back to regular payment (you have to have a copy card), there is one they forgot, so when the others won't make decent copies, I go to the machine they forgot (which usually works fine), and use the card (last time it had only 5c on it and made a few copies). I think it is quite funny that the one that is free (and which they apparently don't know about) actually works well, and the others don't work well. (they now have a free scanning machine which I think is even better, although with those copies you have to use your machine to read them, they do use less space).

Also, years ago at work, there was some issue about a broken electric receptacle cover (just the common type) in the office part of the building, and someone thought they had to get some specialist to change it, although there are people in the company who work with electrical and electronic devices all the time (the company makes electric testing instruments). I think they did get it fixed. But it shows the mentality of some in bureaucracies that cannot change a light bulb without the bulb also wanting to make the change!
Roy Starkey December 17, 2014 09:44PM
Hi Spencer

With regard to your post above re the "Birmingham Museum natural history department", I would like to add a couple of remarks as a volunteer at the Lapworth Museum and member of the Project Team.

The main Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery collection was loaned to the University in late 2009 (not 2005) and initial Heritage Lottery Fund enquiries / discussions combined with those with the University fund raising team commenced shortly after that. As you may have read in a previous post by myself - see http://www.mindat.org/article.php/2063/New+Earth+Sciences+Museum+for+the+West+Midlands the Lapworth Museum has been successful in its bid to win HLF support for the redevelopment of the museum.

The Lapworth Museum Redevelopment Project is now well advanced and will see the new museum opening in late 2015. As part of this, a completely new mineral gallery will be created. I do not remember the particular stone which you mention, but it is planned for the new gallery to include a good selection of the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery Gem Collection. I hope you will come along and see the new displays in due course.

Hope that helps and reassures somewhat.

Stephen Rose December 17, 2014 09:55PM
I volunteer at a local university museum for a few hours a week, mostly to answer questions and to help with some displays, cleaning glass and doing some mineral identification when needed. There is a part-time curator, a young fellow who is quite willing but who is very restricted by budget issues. A short time ago I was told that I should not use the glass cleaner I had brought from home because the chemicals might affect the display cases which are of historic interest. They use a special glass cleaner. Could I have a bottle of the special glass cleaner to keep in my desk for the times when the curator is not there and I am unable to access the cleaning supplies? No. We can't get it. It is too much of an issue to make the requisition and spend the money for an additional bottle of the special cleaner. And so it goes.

With regard to the disintegrating orpiment and realgar specimens; cleaning the debris from the display cases raises a number of issues, many of which have been mentioned. One other involves the 'hazardous' nature of the mineral itself and all of the regulations that therefore come into play and affect the clean up process.

Cheers, I think,

Keith Compton December 17, 2014 10:43PM
To George


Well, it appears the Mindat community has had a small win on the display front.
I say well done to all who participated in this mini forum. Let's hope that more can be done for the minerals at the AMNH.


Vitaliy December 19, 2014 11:19PM
Rock Currier Wrote:
> The displays of the American Museum of natural
> history are disgraceful, but certainly are not
> uniquely disgraceful. I think of them as
> symptomatic of the general disfunctionality that
> we find in many american institutions like our
> health care system or our government. It reminds
> me of the many jokes about how many people of the
> ethnic persuasion of your choice does it take to
> screw in a light bulb.

Well said and I completely agree. To bring up this point further how can a museum in what is considered a 'developing' country in Eastern Europe or a former Soviet member country be able to maintain proper displays and their infrastructure and a museum in a 'developed' country such as America have such bureaucracy and red-tape that prevents maintenance of displays and their specimens.
Rock Currier December 22, 2014 02:18AM
It would appear that you may not be aware that the cause of realgar decomposition is perhaps not so much UV light as that of visible light 500 to 670 nm range. It would appear that your replacement lights may cause as much damage to your new realgar specimen as your old ones.


Rock Currier
Crystals not pistols.
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