Unknown to most, rare minerals with such names as carletonite, serondite, and sodalite represent the beauty of nature — and the curiosity of one man whose massive collection is helping to build a more solid financial future for the Canadian Museum of Nature via the newly announced Nature Foundation. Here, a quick look at the unique acquisition.
No one is cutting these gems for necklaces, explains Paula Piilonen, a mineralogist with the museum. They are much too fragile. They are special because, in some cases, they are only found at Mont Saint-Hilaire, near Montreal. Over 420 rare minerals have been found only at the Saint-Hilaire quarry. While the Museum of Nature already holds specimens of some of these in its collection, these new additions are considered of higher quality. But with a funding shortfall, they need the backing of the newly minted Nature Foundation — backed by $1 million worth of rare minerals donated by a man named Gilles Haineault — to exhibit them.
Piilonen explains that Mont Saint-Hilaire is situated along the St. Lawrence rift valley. Thousands of years ago, magma from the earth’s core rose in a process called upwelling; as the crust fractured,
pressure was released, causing the magma to melt and rise. Rather than a volcanic eruption, the magma was pushed into the crust where it crystallized. When a quarry was developed in the area in 1959, excavators discovered one of the richest known mineral deposits in the world. The stunning blue carletonite, for example, has been found only at Mont Saint-Hilaire. (Yes, it’s named after Carleton University!)
Gilles Haineault, a collector who lives near Saint-Hilaire, became obsessed with hanging around the quarry. By making contacts with the people working there, he gained exclusive access, spending countless hours watching big trucks make big holes — always keeping an eye out for something out of the ordinary. He’s been known to secure areas with plywood and pillows and gently claw through rock for hours. Haineault approached the museum, via Piillonen, to suggest the acquisition nearly 10 years ago. He wanted a permanent home for his collection and saw that the national museum would be the ideal place for it.
We may think that our publicly funded museums are exempt from the fallout of COVID-19 closures, but that would be a mistake.While the museum is quick to say they are grateful for government funding this year, it’s not enough to cover their losses. With traditional commercial revenue gone, developing other ways to grow the museum became a critical priority. The new Nature Foundation is the answer to a shortfall in revenue and will help fund exhibits so that the public can see these beauties in a suitable setting — one that advances our understanding of earth’s geographic history.