Saturday, September 16, 2006

If You're In The Northwest...

My husband and I just got back from the coolest belated-birthday celebration excursion. Our friend took us to the Rice NW Museum of Rocks and Minerals, in Hillsboro Oregon, and I'll tell ya, we had no idea we had such a gem in our own back yard. (I know, sorry about the pun. Sometimes they just crystallize.) The non-profit museum was started by an Oregon couple, Helen and Richard Rice, who shared a lifelong passion for unearthing the beautiful treasures that now line the walls and cases of the over 7,000 square foot home that they built to house their growing collection. One of the friendly guides at the museum spent quite a lot of time with us, opening our eyes to some of the beauties, oddities and uses of the minerals displayed in one of the two museum buildings. She told us that the Rices weren't just collectors, storing up the wonders that other people had discovered, but that they themselves had found many of the specimens that they had gathered over the years.

This collection, already impressive, has been expanded since the Rice's deaths in 1997. The brochure I picked up said the museum has become nationally recognized, and "is the finest rock and mineral museum in the Pacific Northwest, and one of the best in the nation." It went on to describe the museum's crystal hoard as "one of the world's finest collections of crystals from worldwide locations." There are meteorites, fossils (including really fascinating dinosaur eggs and a baby psittacosaurus), a fluorescent minerals room (they look all plain and boring, until black light is shone on them in a darkened room; then they're magic), and the most amazing display of petrified wood. Really, the petrified wood was remarkable. The collection belongs to Dennis and Mary Murphy, and has over 450 specimens. I never knew wood could turn so many colors.

In the museum's mineral and crystal sections we saw such a varied array of colors, shapes and sizes, that I couldn't begin to describe it all. There was a 3,000 lb. thunderegg, with a quartz interior, as well as minerals and crystals that looked like (I am not fooling here) frozen broccoli, AstroTurf, rabbit fur, melted crayons, cauliflower, a mass of stuck together bars of soap, abstract modern art, and butter cookies with butterscotch sprinkles. We learned some interesting facts about the minerals, too. We learned that some of the brighter colored minerals, like azurite, are ground up for eyeshadow. The giant mass that looks like bars of soap all stuck together is barite, and it is used to make magazine pages glossy, among other things, and also is the source of the mineral barium, which is used in some x-ray procedures. We kept asking ourselves who comes up with these ideas? I mean who thinks of grinding up a rock and putting it in paint, or antacids, or barium enemas?

Because the staff was friendly and helpful, we also were treated to some fascinating stories. One lovely tale involved an Italian lady of a previous century who ground up arsenic into face powder, to help women murder their husbands. The European custom of kissing people on both cheeks came in handy for the murderesses-to-be. That arsenic would get on their husband's lips, accumulate in the body, where over time it would make them sicker and sicker. The symptoms resembled cholera, so this scheme went unnoticed for quite some time. Over six hundred men died before the arsenic-laced makeup was discovered to be the culprit. This, in my opinion, gives new meaning to the common phrase, "putting on a face."

We spent three hours oohing and aahing, and listening and learning. We could have spent more. We will definitely be going back. Here's where I'll throw the museum a little more free advertising. My husband wants us to take a faceting class they offer that we got to sit in on for a few minutes, where they teach people how to shape a gemstone--it's a great deal; just $110 for twenty hours of instruction, equipment and materials provided, and you get to keep your finished work!!