HOUGHTON — It’s been 31 years, but John Jaszczak still remembers his first visit to the AE Seaman Mineral Museum.
“When the elevator doors opened on the fifth floor of the EERC (Electrical Energy Resources Center) building, I couldn’t believe it” said Jaszczak.
Since then, Jaszczak, a professor of physics at Michigan Technological University, has become director and curator of the museum. Twenty years after that visit, the museum moved from the EERC to a new 8,000 square foot building along Sharon Avenue.
But a recent gift from the Seaman family ensures the museum will be there to inspire more reactions like Jaszczak’s for generations to come.
In May, John “Jack” and Phyllis Seaman made an endowment to the museum in honor of Jack’s 103rd birthday. His grandfather, Arthur Edmund Seaman, founded the museum 120 years ago. His father, Wyllys A. Seaman, served as its third curator.
The John and Phyllis Seaman Endowment for Curation of the AE Seaman Mineral Museum provides perpetual support to the position of curator.
They have also created a support fund for students involved with the museum. It was dedicated in honor of two of Wyllys Seaman’s geology students – Jean Petermann Kemp Zimmer, a 1939 graduate who later served as the museum’s curator from 1975 to 1986, and Jack’s sister, Jeanne Seaman Farnum.
Sailors have long been benefactors of the museum. Jaszczak remembers first meeting Jack at the museum’s 100th anniversary gala, when 26 descendants of Seaman visited.
“He has fond memories of his grandfather, he still remembers all the street names and all the families,” said Jaszczak. “They also wanted to honor the legacy of his father and grandfather, who were both curators, and also really support the collection itself, its care and use.”
Part of the curator’s responsibility is to care for the collection – acquiring, cataloging and cleaning the minerals, which now number around 40,000 pieces. About a tenth of them are on display. In addition to the museum, it has satellite exhibits around the Upper Peninsula and downstate. Museum staff also visit mineral exhibits in places like Detroit and Tucson, Arizona.
Sometimes Jaszczak tries to present a mineral in its typical form so that visitors can recognize it on the beach. But for the most part, it’s about displaying the best specimens – looking at size, color, durability, and well-formed crystals.
He pointed to his favorite specimen, a copper-bearing calcite crystal in a twin formation.
“This particular way they grew up together is like a butterfly,” he said. “It gives him a growth advantage…I like the way he tells a physics story about his story.”
Another piece in the collection has a personal connection to Jaszczak. He helped confirm the existence of a new mineral – a combination of molybdenum, lead and sulfur that appears as tiny whiskers on more common types of minerals. He helped name the mineral – merelaniite, in honor of the Merelani mining district in Tanzania.
Part of being a curator also means helping to identify the things people bring – or better, donate to the museum. Jaszczak showed a recent donation – a copper fan made by a miner.
“They just thought, ‘It’s time for this to come home'” he said. “It was in New Mexico, but it’s from the central mine, and they wanted it back here.”
The exhibitions and the museum are constantly changing. The storefronts, built in the 1970s, recently had their plywood doors replaced with cherry doors for a more attractive look. The museum is also adding new orientation panels.
In 2015, Tech finalized an agreement to share ownership of objects from geologist Douglass Houghton’s collection, which was in the custody of the University of Michigan. Several labels bear his handwriting. A piece of copper may have detached from the famous rock of Ontonagon.
The museum also gets ultraviolet flashlights to help students discover the most popular part of the museum – the fluorescent minerals.
Jaszczak is also working with teachers to begin developing programs they can use before and after their field trips to the museum.
“Maybe they won’t be mineral collectors, maybe they will”, he said. “Maybe they won’t be scientists, maybe they will be. I think it’s an important part of Michigan history, local heritage, scientific awareness, and just aesthetic appeal.