Mineral collection

A view of the Mineral Gallery, Waterhouse building.

A view of the Mineral Gallery, Waterhouse building.

The Natural History Museum mineral collection is one of the most important and comprehensive collections of its type in the world. It now contains about 350,000 specimens and, apart from a small number of specialised regional collections, it is organised on a species systematic basis.

Mineral collection

Baryte; Dalmellington mine, Cumbria

Baryte; Dalmellington mine, Cumbria

Around 14,000 specimens representing some 2,000 mineral species are displayed in the Mineral Gallery (Gallery 102 in the Waterhouse building). Here each species is shown in as wide a range of locality, colour, associated species, crystal form etc as space and availability permits. This display is complemented by a series of introductory cases (designed with the National Curriculum in mind) and a number of wall cases showing large and choice specimens - in many cases, some of the world’s finest known examples.

Calcite; Bigrigg, Cumbria

Calcite; Bigrigg, Cumbria

A list of type specimens in the mineral collection has recently been published and the index to the collection is undergoing revision. The third edition of Hey’s Mineral Index has been published and is a well established international reference source. It is currently available in printed and CD-ROM forms.

The mineral collection is recognised throughout the world as a major scientific research source.Numerous requests for information and reference samples are regularly received from in-house scientists, industrial laboratories and academic institutions. 

Hematite 'kidney-ore'; Furness, Cumbria

Hematite 'kidney-ore'; Furness, Cumbria

Fine specimens from the collection are regularly loaned to other museums for short and long-term exhibition purposes.

The Systematic Mineral Collection can be seen in the Mineral Gallery (Gallery 102). Visitors and students with research interests in the stored collections can view them by prior arrangement with the Collection Leader.

For more information contact: Alan Hart

History of the Mineral Collection

The mineral collection of the Natural History Museum, regarded quite rightly by many as one of the finest in the world, had a humble and slow origin. Minerals have fascinated humans since time immemorial, but the accumulation of examples into a collection was unknown before the fifteenth and only became fashionable in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

No British collections are known from before the late seventeenth century. The NHM collection started with the collection of Sir Hans Sloane, who was born on 16 April 1660 at Killileagh, Northern Ireland. He grew up to become a physician, and was one of the physicians to Queen Anne at the time of her death in 1714. Moving in such circles made him a wealthy man, and he invested it in 'curiosa', such that when he died in 1753 he had a collection of about 200,000 objects. Through his will he offered the collection to the nation as the basis of a national museum, and though the Treasury would not fund it, it was eventually gained through public subscription (an early lottery!). It was this collection which formed the basis of the British Museum and eventually the NHM mineral collection.

Sloane's registers record a total 8,649 entries for "Pretious Stones, Agates, Jaspers &c', Chrystals, Sparrs &c', and Metals, Mineral-Ores, &c". Few of these were regarded at the time as being of any importance and many were buried, or auctioned in 1803 and 1806. Today just 161 are identifiable as being Sloane specimens; these are nearly all hand-worked objects in agate, nephrite, carnelian or mocha stone. In the early twentieth century, two drawers of Sloane's pharmacopoea or medicine chest were discovered in the Museum; these contain mostly mineral and fossil specimens used as medicinal remedies.

Between the acquisition of Sloane's material in 1753, and 1799, there was virtually no attention paid to the mineral collection, and no additions to it. The true foundation of the present collection is probably the purchase in 1799 of 7,000 specimens from Charles Hatchett, FRS, and the bequest of 868 fine specimens from the Reverend Clayton Mordaunt Cracherode, a former Trustee, in the same year. In 1809 there was an unexpected opportunity to acquire the collection of The Right Honourable Charles Francis Greville, second son of the Earl of Bute and a nephew of Sir William Hamilton. This collection was judged to be far superior to the then national collection, and, just as it was about to go on public sale, Parliament voted a special grant to purchase it. The collection of about 20,000 specimens also contained that of the Baron Ignatz von Born (1742-91) of Prague. In 1816, the extensive and much admired collection of between 12,000 and 14,000 specimens of the Baron Franz Coelestin von Beroldingen of Hanover and the Palatinate was purchased, and in 1823 possibly the best collection of Vesuvian minerals from Professor Teodoro Monticelli of Naples was acquired. Also in 1823, King George IV presented a collection of fine minerals from the ancient and extensive mining regions of the Harz Mountains (Germany), although they were not received until 1828.

While the collection of mineral specimens was now growing, there was very poor representation of cut and polished gemstones. Sloane's collection of 'Pretious stones' is thought to have been of uncut natural crystals, and only much later on was just one, a fine sapphire 'set with small rubies and emeralds and gold in a hemisphere of rock crystal and mounted in silver', recognised. To redress this, a collection of about 300 stones was purchased from the Russian Minister-Resident at Hamburg, Mr H.C.G. Struve. These included two large star sapphires.

In 1834 the extensive collection of the Dowager Countess of Aylesford, who had died two years previously, passed to the mineral dealer Henry Heuland, from whom the Trustees purchased many fine specimens. In 1837, the year that Queen Victoria ascended the throne, a General Register of Acquisitions was started. Ten years later, HRH the Prince Consort presented a very large group of colourless prismatic gypsum crystals from Reinhardsbrunn, Germany, and the Trustees purchased the outstanding hollow cubic siderite (chalybite) pseudomorph after fluorite from Virtuous Lady mine, Devon. Up to 1857, the collection continued to grow at the rate of about 2-300 items per year; notable among them was the purchase of 62 diamonds from the Hope Collection (alas, the vivid and very rare blue Hope diamond was not included) in 1850, a very large specimen of crystallised galena from Laxey mine, Isle of Man (subsequently said to be the largest crystallised sulphide specimen in any museum) in 1851, and the crystallised 'Latrobe' gold nugget from Mount McIvor, Victoria, raised on 1 May 1853 in the presence of His Excellency C.J. Latrobe, Governor of the Colony. The next large collections to be acquired were nearly 3,000 crystalline samples from Dr A. Krantz of Berlin in 1859, and nearly 9,000 specimens in the Allan-Greg Collection in 1860. This latter collection was begun by Thomas Allan FRS of Edinburgh, and purchased after his death by R.H. Greg and later still added to by his son R.P. Greg; it was very strong in British minerals and the publication Manual of the Mineralogy of Great Britain and Ireland (Greg & Lettsom) was largely based upon it. In 1865, the collection of General Nikolai Koksharov of St Petersburg was purchased. This offered fine specimens from the Russian empire then infrequently seen in western Europe; most notable among them was a fine suite of six delicate 'sherry' coloured topaz crystals, and an exceptional perovskite crystal on matrix.

Further acquisitions towards the end of the century are too numerous to list, but one might pick out the 1,142 gram platinum nugget from the Ural Mountains (1875), the enormous (60 cm) calcite crystal with one polished end to show double refraction from Iceland (1876), the stunning group of deep red lustrous proustite crystals from Chile (1877), and the 'Colenso' diamond and 'Edwardes' ruby, presented by John Ruskin (1887).

Since the start of the twentieth century, the collection has benefited from the acquisition of such collections as those of F.N. Ashcroft, presented piecemeal between about 1919 and 1938, and for long regarded as possibly the finest collection of Swiss minerals, the Sir Arthur Russell (Bt.) collection of about 12,000 of the finest British minerals in 1964, the combined collections of F.L. Smith and C.L. Key consisting of about 1,000 choice worldwide samples (1970), and most recently, the transfer of approximately 35,000 mineral samples from the collection of the British Geological Survey in 1985.