by Martin Horejsi of  Martin Horejsi's Meteorite and Tektite Books
An Article In Meteorite-Times Magazine

The Meteorites of the US National Museum of Natural History

Part 1: The Public Sector


There are some who speculate that the black stone at Kabba in Mecca is a meteorite. That is a mystery that will remain so for some time to come. However if there is a Mecca for meteorite enthusiasts, it should be no mystery that it is the public display of the U.S. National Meteorite Collection at the Smithsonian.  

This collection of more than 17,000 specimens resides in the Department of Mineral Sciences at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC. The collection holds representatives of more than 9250 different meteorite localities and some 7000 meteorite thin sections. 

The meteorite collection, which first started in 1870, underwent a huge renovation of its public display several years ago. The rocks from space are no longer mere objects of curiosity offered up to the masses in sterile cases cloaked in scientific jargon. Instead, the meteorites have been elevated to the glorious objects they are; a fusing of art and scientific excitement. It was not a simple undertaking to redesign and build the displays, but the result is nothing less than stupendous!

The Hope Diamond is to the Museum of Natural History what the Mona Lisa is to the Louvre in Paris; a destination all in itself. But now, just a few short meters from the coveted blue diamond sits what is arguably the most recognizable meteorite in the world, the Tucson Ring. The presence of the Ring in a room separate from the rest of its brethren shows the Smithsonianís appreciation for meteorites as more than geologic specimens. Ahhh finally, meteorites as art.

When entering the meteorite exhibit from the main hall, one is again in the presence of diamonds, but this time they are interstellar. In what May be the most exotic of the meteorite displays, 1.2 milligrams of micro-diamonds from the Allende meteorite are suspended in an acid and solution. The casual consumer of meteorite information might easily miss the significance of this display, but the message is clear, diamonds really are forever!


Once inside the meteorite exhibit, one is surrounded on all sides by huge glass cases, each filled with individual topical meteorite displays that together form a fairly complete picture of meteorite science. The displays are more categorical rather than ones purely of classification. The categories often consist of a blend of meteorite classifications offering a more general picture of cosmic events instead of a simple but often unimpressive stratification of specimens based upon solely on chemistry.


The center of the floor space holds the great irons. All touchable, but none movable. My excitement for this display centered on one specimen in particular, the Oakley, Idaho oriented iron since I live a short drive from Oakley. But to my disMay, the only evidence this specimen ever existed was a specimen card guarding the empty spot where the iron once sat. The Oakley was missing. Later, I would inquire as to the whereabouts of the iron, but that would have to wait.

 One of the giant irons that seized my attention was the graceful and sexy Goose Lake iron. Its smooth skin and curvaceous form begged to be hugged. If Marilyn Monroe were ever reincarnated as a meteorite, she would be the Goose Lake.


 Whole irons were not the only giants, there was also a slice of Mundrabilla so large it could pass as full-length mirror, minus the extensive silicate inclusions of course. The Mundrabilla iron stood propped up like a mummy in its own case. Above it hung one of several television monitors around the display offering more detailed information to those taller visitors. If there were one major shortcoming with this exhibit (besides the traditional harsh lighting in a dark room stereotype) it would be the lack of modern multimedia technology that could easily bring life to these elegant stones.







In addition to the TVs sprinkled around the exhibit, there were a few interactive displays allowing visitors to test their knowledge of some aspect of meteorite science. One of the more popular was the Meteor-Rights or Meteor-Wrongs display. Six buttons, one for each of six specimens on display gave viewers the chance to guess whether the particular object was a meteorite or not. While I got six out of six, most people did not appear to have a clue what they were looking at, hitting about 50 percent success. For the kids, however, the buttons offered a blinking distraction that bought a little more time for mom and dad to study the display text.













The etched irons are always a crowd-pleaser and this display was nothing short of spectacular! Words cannot describe the rich array of etchings, nor the elegant form of intersecting widmanstatten lines. It is not just slice size that matters here, but also the quality of the specimens holding the etch. Some intersections formed beautiful stars, others complex but pleasing intersections.



If one ventured into the science behind the nickel-iron etch patterns, one would read that the line thickness in the etch pattern is relative to size of the asteroid that it came from. While I have read of connections such as this, I was a little surprised that the Smithsonian display made it an obvious point of interest. In fact, there was even an interactive display offering a test of the readerís understanding of this insight. Readers could push a button to test their guess as to if an asteroid was a big one or a small one based upon the observation of etched slices. 


The display also hinted at the number of asteroids from which we have iron meteorite representatives here on earth. The number offered is 60. While it might seem a bit conservative to assume all our hundreds of irons only represent only 60 different asteroids, it is an assumption truly based on science. If you have 60 distinct chemical signatures, the best you can say is that you have 60 different producers of the meteorites. But in reality, our irons are most likely from hundreds of different asteroids. It is just that we cannot prove it using the ironís chemical DNA to separate between asteroids of similar composition.

Breaking from traditional meteorite displays, the Smithsonian offered up exquisite examples of orientation at the exclusion of the specimenís classification. The four stones in the display would make any meteorite enthusiastís heart skip a beat. One stone in particular, Archie, Missouri captured my attention so fully that I just stood slack-jawed drinking up its elegance like the finest of wines. Its velvet skin flowing gracefully as if silk covering a newborn baby. But this infant was borne in the fires of violent confrontation. Where gentle flow lines are really the scars of war, and subtle contours are the deeper wounds from a battle fought with the thinnest of air.




A test for any collectionís depth is its presentation of the stony-irons. These illusive beasts once roamed the mantles of distant asteroids, but are seldom ever captured alive by the earth. Their extreme rarity makes them a litmus test for the scope of a meteorite display. As would be expected, the Smithsonianís presentation is world-class. The 10 pallasite slices in the display, each with a polished face capable of launching a thousand ships, stun the viewer into scientific submission. Studying how they formed will come later. For now, their shimmering faces full of smiling olivine crystals reach down deep into the human soul to find the child-like sense of awe we so often miss in science.









The beauty of a pallasite is a gift for everyone, but mesosiderites are often appreciated only by the more refined meteorite connoisseur. Mesosiderites take many forms, but all have one thing in common, a fusion of stone and metal, each battling for our attention, but always ending in a draw. As the displayís sign proclaims, the mesosiderites are enigmatic and formed during cosmic impacts. But then our science mumbles off onto tangents unknown solidifying our current confusion over the birth of mesosiderites.








But there is one specimen in the stony-iron case that screams with a symmetry so familiar, but yet so unplaceable. When staring into the face of Benccubbin, another world slowly emerges. A frozen world where a lake of stone is dusted with delicate, shiny ripples of iron as if snow was sifted into repeating waves, swept by the harsh cosmic winds. I have seen smaller slices of this unusual stone, but to see a polished surface a large as a dinner plate is to peer onto the surface of another planet. No smaller piece could convey the intensity and detail of this unearthly realm.


When attempting to describe a meteorite display as vast as this one, many elements must be left out. Like the aspects of the display described above, the chondrites and achondrites were both given ample real estate to tell their story. The display held stunning examples of these stones, but this article would be more than three times as long if each category were given even the briefest of overviews. Maybe the future holds more on this public meteorite display, but for now, the line is drawn here.


While there is never enough time to fully enjoy such a massive display, I knew my trip to the Smithsonian was only going to get better for I had appointments with both Tim McCoy and Brian Mason. The display described above is for the public, but tomorrow I would go where the public cannot. For that story, you will have to wait for the next issue of The Meteorite Times. Stay tuned for part two!

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