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A Visit To The Oscar E. Monnig Meteorite Gallery

The Oscar Monnig Meteorite Gallery is on the campus of Texas Christian University in the Sid Richardson Science Building. Oscar E. Monnig amassed in his life one of the finest private collections of meteorites of his time. He was a man with a lifelong passion for meteorites. The Monnig Meteorite Collection was donated to TCU over eight years from 1978 to 1986. The current curator, Dr. Rhiannon Mayne has served in the position since 2009. The Oscar Monnig Meteorite Gallery opened on February 1, 2003. However, it is currently not open to the public as a result of the pandemic.

My story I suppose begins in 2003 when I heard about the opening of the Gallery and my wish since then to see it. That wish had to wait until just days ago when I had a reason to travel to the Dallas/Fort Worth area. Through introductions made by Geoff Notkin and the generosity of Dr. Mayne to share her time, my wish was going to be fulfilled.

About a month before traveling to the Notkin Meteorite Collection auction at Heritage Auctions in Dallas I got a message from Geoff Notkin and at the same moment a phone call from Bob Holmes. I answered the phone call first. Bob said he was going to the auction and asked if he could come along with me on the visit to the Monnig Gallery. I was glad to have him come with me. As I had expected to spend all my time in Dallas by myself. When I answered Geoff’s text message I saw that he was asking if I would be OK with Bob attending the visit to the Monnig Meteorite Gallery. With that and all the travel plans out of the way, it was just a matter of me containing my excitement for another month.

We arrived at the building which houses the Monnig Gallery about fifteen minutes late because of two traffic accidents on the highway between Dallas and Fort Worth. I hate being late. With the help of another professor, we met in a hallway we were shown to Dr. Mayne’s office. With introductions made we spend a nice initial visit with her in her laboratory/office. She was working with a martian meteorite examining microprobe images on the computer. She was viewing the meteorite at just 25x but mentioned the machine would go to 10000x which I thought was amazing, I use a binocular microscope that operates at a couple of hundred power at the most and I do most of my close-up photography with an extension tube camera rig and a vintage 50mm macro lens. I love the technology of meteorite examination and could not resist taking a few images of the equipment.

Dr. Mayne mentioned a desire to over time develop the facility into a fully operating classification lab for meteorites. Which is certainly something the meteorite field needs. There is always a tremendous backlog of work at the currently existing labs. It often required months to get a meteorite classified. One of the longest portions of that time is taken by the manufacturing of the thin sections. Dr. Mayne said she still prefers to use a thin section as part of classification work. I love thin section examination. I often make thin sections of my meteorite submissions. Enjoying them while I wait for official classifications to come out. I like to guess to myself what the meteorite will turn out to be.

On the right in this image is the Hitachi TM4000Plus electron microscope that takes the numerous types of images used in meteorite analysis.

This is the optical petrological microscope that Dr. Mayne uses. It is equipped with a camera at the back and an LCD screen on top to show the camera images.
This is the carbon coater that is used in the preparation of samples that go into the electron microscope. These are amazing machines some of which can monitor the thickness of the carbon coating to 0.1 nm accuracy.

It was interesting to see the carbon coater in Dr. Mayne’s lab. I mentioned to her and Bob an incident I had several years ago. I sent off a meteorite for classification and included one of my thin sections. I was told later by the classifier that the thin section was good and worked fine but they had to repolish it with colloidal silica to get my carbon from the diamond polishing off so they could coat it with the proper carbon using a machine probably similar to this one. It was nice to finally see what that equipment looks like.

There was a diamond wire saw in the outer room of the lab and next to it a big tub full of stones. I thought maybe it was a tub of small meteorites but she said that was the box of meteorwrongs. Which led to her telling a few of her stories about why she no longer accepts submissions from the public. She has experienced many of the same things that have led meteorite dealers and other scientists to no longer accept stones for examination from the public. People get so invested in the rock their grandfather saw fall. They always fall on the other side of the little hill on their property. After 100 years of telling the story, they can not accept the truth that it is not a meteorite. It can cause a variety of difficulties that can occasionally be scary and are always time-consuming.

We headed a couple of doors down the hall to the Gallery. As the following images show it is a finely crafted set of displays about all aspects of space rocks. There were displays for all the families of meteorites and also displays of tektites and impact rocks. Individual larger meteorites were displayed on their own stands. Beautiful appropriate art was associated with the individual displays. As we walked along Dr. Mayne spoke of the ongoing activities of the Gallery and Meteorite Collection. One of the most interesting and I felt most important was the creation by some of the technology students of a program for the visually impaired that allowed users to adjust the contrast and brightness and size of fonts so that they could more easily enjoy and learn from the galleries exhibits.

This is the display for the iron meteorite family. Similar wonderful displays showed meteorites for all the types of chondrites, achondrites, lunar and Martian meteorites, as well as impactites and tektites.

Many of the displays are cases mounted to the wall as seen in the foregoing image. But others are low flat display cases allowing visitors to look closely down at the specimens. In several of the areas of the gallery, there are free-standing displays similar to that seen in the next image.

Photography is not normally allowed at the gallery and I am very grateful to TCU for granting me permission to take and publish the images in this article. It is not always easy to shoot through glass or plastic display case covers. But one almost has to try when it is a beautiful shiny fusion crusted eucrite stone like this Kirbyville specimen shown in the next image.

Dr. Mayne expressed a desire to add some interactive displays in the future that would engage younger visitors to the gallery by letting them do something active with the specimens. I am by no means a younger visitor anywhere now but I love those displays in other museums. I would like to return to the Monnig Gallery after they are in place. There is still some kid in me I guess.

At this time Dr. Mayne is the lone captain and crew of the Gallery and Monnig Meteorite Collection. She is a person devoted to meteorites and their study. She is also conducting research in differentiation and as mentioned earlier would like to see the facility become a classifying lab.

Nothing is more exciting to meteorite enthusiasts like me and Bob than to get a chance to see in the back room of museums and labs. Dr. Mayne took us to view the collection specimens that are not currently on display. Donning gloves she showed and let us hold some of Oscar Monnig’s prized specimens that he acquired during his lifelong love of meteorites. We saw some of the more recent acquisitions and donations. The collection is still growing. And they accept donations from collectors. Just a gentle arm-twist there to some of you readers that have something nice you could share.

Dr. Rhiannon Mayne and Bob Holmes

As we looked at the specimens she pointed out a lunar slice that Geoff Notkin had donated rather recently. I looked at it and it looked familiar. Then I saw on his card the NWA number. I said, “I think I cut that slice.” It took me a few seconds scrolling through my phone images to find the picture of the table full of slices. There was the one now at the Monnig Museum. Geoff had told me that he was going to donate a couple of pieces and I would be proud of where they went, but I never thought I would ever see any of them.

Bob Holmes held a piece of Tissimengo a high nickel content iron meteorite that is deceptive in its heaviness. Dr. Mayne took out some of the more interesting specimens from the drawers to show us. They are stored in a climate-controlled room. Visiting the behind the scenes area of the Oscar E. Monnig Collection was one of those significant opportunities that occurs just a few times in a collector’s life.

We talked a bit about meteorite hunting and learned that Dr. Mayne had gone to Antarctica to hunt with an expedition. She had hunted an area where numerous meteorites were found. Hearing about the protocols in use at the bottom of the world was fascinating. As a hunter of meteorites, I related to the excitement of finding them. But the restrictions on picking them up with your hands would be very difficult for me after a lifetime of hunting in hot deserts. I am used to seeing it and immediately bending down to grab it off the ground or pluck it from a magnet stick. If you touch an antarctic meteorite it has to be marked as being touched. It can no longer be used in research to analyze it for organics. Just a single human touch is considered contamination. She related a fun story of the men on the expedition with beards that got a bit drippy from runny noses in the cold and if they bent down to look at the stone it was not unheard of for them to get snot on the meteorites. They were marked on the collection record as “snotted”. She told us of another meteorite that had been found after the driver of a skidoo felt something hit the bottom of the machine. Dr. Mayne of course did not get to keep any of the meteorites she found on the expedition. Finding one for herself remains something she would like to do. I hope that she can find the time to go out hunting. Nothing beats being the first one to touch a stone from beyond our world. And that stone she would get to touch and also keep.

On the floor in the vault area, are some large stones not currently on display anywhere. The Clarendon is seen in the following image. It is an L4 ordinary chondrite with a total known weight of 377 kilograms. The main mass seen in the image is 345 kilograms and it has broken the dolly that it is resting on.

On another area of the floor were other large meteorites. They may someday find their way to displays at the gallery or as loans to other worthy museums. The Oscar E. Monnig Collection is an active collection carrying on the passion of its creator decades later. But also a place looking into the future for how it can instruct and enlighten generations to come.

Eventually, we came to the end of our visit to the Oscar Monnig Meteorite Gallery. But our time with Dr. Mayne was far from over. She had been so gracious to give us about two hours of her day, but as it was a bit over 100 degrees out we drove the short distance to the Campus Bookstore for a refreshment. Bob and I sat at a table near the coffee shop for another generous amount of time chatting with her about many different things. It was a wonderful opportunity to get to know each other. Dr. Mayne would be attending the Notkin Auction preview that evening so we would have the chance perhaps to chat some more there.

Our world is difficult right now with the pandemic still on people’s minds and it is still affecting what we can do. I know that Dr. Mayne hopes that the Gallery will eventually reopen to the public with an individual there to guide and inform guests who come. It is a world-class collection of meteorites. It was a great wish fulfilled for me to finally visit the Monnig Meteorite Gallery. I could not have hoped for such a grand tour of the facility like the one I received. Thank you TCU and especially a big thank you to Dr. Rhiannon Mayne.

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