robin hansen natural history museum

December 2021

Robin Hansen

Growing up in her hometown of Perth, Western Australia, Robin developed a love of minerals, completing a degree with Honours in Geology. She worked for three years in the mining sector, in iron ore exploration in the Australian outback, before moving to London and settling into a position in the private mineral collector business. This role was based both in the UK and USA, and was an incredible opportunity to learn more about minerals and where they come from. During this time she complemented the role with a Diploma of Gemmology through the Gemmological Association of Great Britain and was awarded the prestigious Tully Medal. She was thrilled to be offered her dream job as a Curator at the Natural History Museum, London in 2015, helping to care for and manage the magnificent Mineral and Gemstone collection of around 185,000 specimens. No day is ever same at the museum, working on a range of projects from gallery displays to curation, to assisting with all types of enquiries and research. She continues to be fascinated by the incredible histories behind each specimen.

[Tessa Packard]:
Where do you think your love of minerals and rocks came from? What is it about this subject that sings to your soul?

[Robin Hansen]: I definitely got my love of minerals from my mother, who studied both Geology and Gemmology, and is a huge inspiration to me. Growing up in Perth, Western Australia we would go on lots of family picnics into the bush, and look at the different types of rocks and the textures they contained. I have also always had a love of colour so the beautiful rich colours and attractive forms of minerals really fascinate me. I love the fact every specimen is unique, and they were all created by nature with amazing combinations of colours.

[TP]: How has what you do shaped who you are?

[RH]: I am definitely more choosy with the jewellery I wear! Seriously, learning about minerals and gems has given me so much more appreciation for the natural world, and the importance in preserving it. By helping to care for the minerals and gems in the collection, I can ensure they are preserved and accessible for future generations not only as a record of our planet, but for research and innovation.

[TP]: Before you started working for the Natural History Museum you worked in the private mineral collector business. Can you tell us a bit more about what that means and what your job was?

[RH]: I worked for a partnership of high-end mineral dealers who sold mineral specimens to collectors and museums. The role was based in the UK and partly in the USA, and I also assisted with exhibitions at Mineral Shows around the world including France, Germany, USA and Japan. It was a fantastic experience with the opportunity to travel. Before working there, I thought I had a pretty good idea about minerals, but this really opened my eyes to the world of mineral specimens and collecting. I learnt so much about minerals and where they come from, as well as meeting many wonderful people passionate about minerals.

[TP]: What is the most priceless mineral, gemstone or rock that you have worked with?

[RH]: I have been lucky to work with some magnificent specimens both through the mineral dealerships, and at the Museum. Behind each of these specimens there is both a scientific story (how did it grow, why is it that colour?) and a cultural or historical story (what path did the specimen take to come to the Museum). The Museum holds many specimens from the Sir Hans Sloane Collection (the founding collection of the British Museum and Natural History Museum) which predate 1753. There is one specimen which is not only the type specimen for the mineral Columbite, but also for the element Niobium – so this specimen was the very first specimen in which this mineral and this element was discovered! Whilst it is very small and unassuming to look at, scientifically it is priceless.

[TP]: What mineral or gemstone do you find the most fascinating and why?

[RH]: I really love tourmaline, it comes in all the colours of the rainbow, as well as occurring with multiple colour zones in one crystal. It forms very attractive sculptural specimens, and looks gorgeous as a gemstone. But tourmaline is also fascinating geologically, as the different colour zones represent changes in the geological conditions as the crystal grew. Tourmaline is actually a group of minerals, currently containing 37 different species, rather than a single mineral, so the different colour zones may even be more than one tourmaline mineral in the same crystal. Once the crystal has grown, the chemical elements stay in their place, and don’t migrate through the crystal structure as easily as other minerals. This makes tourmaline an important mineral in understanding geological environments over time as it records and preserves the story of the geological changes in its zoned growth.

[TP]: And what natural, geological formation or landmark do you find most remarkable and why?

[RH]: This is a hard one to answer. Growing up in Australia, everything is very old and weathered and flat. Visiting the Swiss Alps was an incredible holiday for me to see these mountain peaks, and you can see huge geological structures like folds in the rocks. I have also done a few road trips in the southwest USA, driving through the desert areas where there is no vegetation cover, and seeing the different coloured layering in the rocks, or the black rocks of old volcanic lava flows is pretty cool. Visiting Hawaii and seeing an active volcano is definitely another highlight.

[TP]: What three things do you feel needs to change in the gemstone industry?

[RH]: The gemstone industry faces many challenges. The provenance of gemstones is a really important area as consumers today wish to know where their gemstone was sourced for political, ethical, environmental, and economic concerns. Determining the provenance of a gemstone is a big focus of gemmological research, and there are some innovative techniques coming on the market that can be used to trace the provenance of a gemstone from the mine through to the consumer. Certification schemes such as the Kimberley Process have had a significant impact to prevent the trade of any diamonds which could potentially fund conflicts. So maintaining as much of a record as possible of the provenance of a gemstone through the many stages from the mine to the consumer is really important.

Disclosure is another big challenge, and it is critical that all treatments and synthetic gemstones have the correct disclosure at their point of sale. New treatments may appear on the market and gemmological labs have to play catch up to try and figure out what the treatments are, and how to detect them. Inadequate disclosure is damaging to the gem industry and breaks the trust of the buyer, so it is a really important area.

The area of synthetic gemstones will be an interesting one to follow, as many people like the idea of purchasing a synthetic gemstone and knowing that there was no mining involved to produce it, but it would be good to know what the impact is to produce a synthetic gemstone – how much energy was required, is it carbon neutral etc, and it would be great to see this information given alongside the  gemstone.

[TP]: Where in the world are you yet to visit but would love to go? What would you be looking at / exploring / or sourcing there?

[RH]: Geologically I would love to visit Iceland, a fascinating place. The fact that it spans the Mid-Atlantic ridge means it is on a divergent margin between two tectonic plates, so as the plates move apart brand new rocks are forming there. It will be amazing to walk over such geologically young rocks rather than being millions of years old. Gemmologically I would love to visit Madagascar or Sri Lanka, to visit where they are mining the different gem rough, and see the gem markets. Both have related geological histories and an incredible diversity of gem minerals.

[TP]: If you could curate your dream exhibition of minerals / rocks / gems what would it look like? Please give as much description as you can about the geographical location, where the exhibition would be held, how it would be arranged or decorated, who would attend, the food and drink you would serve, and what you would be looking to achieve with this show?

[RH]: I think I would have to go big, and create an exhibit of the world’s largest gemstones and gem minerals. The biggest faceted gemstones and gem quality crystals of topaz, aquamarine, emerald, tourmaline, kunzite, diamond, ruby, sapphire and more. I would have them spaced out in a darkened room in individual display cabinets, so that you could slowly weave your way around them, and each specimen could be seen from all sides. Lighting would be key to focus on each specimen, and make the gems sparkle and glitter.

For the venue, it is really hard to go past the NHM for a spectacular entry hall. Guest would come in through the main entrance into Hintze Hall which is awe-inspiring in itself, and then (now in the realms of fantasy) be led to a lift which would transport them down into an underground vault. I would recreate a cavity within a pegmatite with gem crystals growing from the sides for visitors to walk through to enter the display room, so that you feel like you have gone deep into the Earth to see the minerals where they form. I would serve sparkling drinks of different colours to match the gems, and have one of those cakes that is decorated to look like an amethyst geode (I have always wanted one of these!). The aim would be to create a breath-taking display filled with dazzling, colourful jewels, to show visitors just how incredible nature is, and to inspire them to learn more about the minerals and gems, with an experience they would never forget.

[TP]: In your opinion is it possible to ethically mine minerals and gemstones on a medium to large scale without causing long-lasting damage to the environment?

[RH]: This is definitely a complex question. Ethical issues are a key consideration, and may be applied to environmental concerns but are also often associated with human rights issues, such as community impact, slavery, child labour, war and so on. It is possible to mine minerals/gemstones on a medium to large scale and to put into place environmental protection which will minimise the impact of extraction and processing, maximise recovery from any damage, and to control legacy impacts. There are some countries, and mining companies, which do this really well for diamonds or coloured stones, such as in Botswana, Canada, Australia, Zambia and Mozambique. However it depends on the location, local environment, the methods of extraction, investment, regulations and all sorts of other factors.

[TP]: What is your view on lab created gemstones and diamonds?

[RH]: Many gemstones are synthesised particularly diamond, emerald, ruby and sapphire. Synthetics have the same properties as the natural gemstone so in terms of wearing them in jewellery there is very little difference. The production of synthetics has made these gems much more readily available and affordable, giving everyone the chance to own and wear them, especially rarer gems like emerald. Many people like the fact that these gems are not mined, so there are no concerns regarding the impact of mining. But it is really a matter of personal preference. Personally, I would prefer to wear a natural gemstone, because I have gained such an appreciation for the natural world through my career. I also find it kind of mind blowing to think that the diamond on my finger is millions of years old.

[TP]: What episode or development in the last ten years has most impacted what you do?

[RH]: I have just finished writing a book ‘Gemstones’ for NHM Publishing, which I am really proud of. It has pretty much taken over my life, especially in the last year writing on most weekends and evenings – I did not appreciate just how much work it would be! Overall, it was a great experience, I read many books and scientific papers and learnt so much in gathering the information, so it has really expanded my knowledge of gems. It also really brought home how important it is to have perseverance, so that even when you don’t feel like writing, or you are stuck and can’t think of what to write, or how to write it, you keep on going. I have also learnt a lot of synonyms – I never realised how often I use the word ‘commonly’!

[TP]: What is on the NHM’s wishlist in terms of acquisitions in the mineral or gemstone department?

[RH]: The Mineral and Gem collection aims to showcase the depth of breadth of the mineral kingdom, so we add new minerals, or examples from a new location, or with a new colour or form. We are incredibly strong in historical specimens, but we do lack modern specimens in some areas, as private collectors now dominate the top end of the market. Top of the wish list is a large uncut diamond crystal. I would also love to acquire a Paraíba tourmaline gemstone, they just have the most magnificent neon blue-green colour. These were the first tourmalines to be discovered that contained impurities of copper which cause the colour, first found in the late 1980s in the Paraíba state in Brazil.

[TP]: And what is an absolute no-go for you and the Museum in terms of acquisition process?

[RH]: As a public institution we have very strict policies and procedures when considering an acquisition. As part of our due diligence we must ensure that any acquisition was legally collected, legally exported from the country of origin and legally imported to the UK, adhering to all local and country rules and regulations. Today, it can be very difficult to obtain evidence of all of these steps, especially if the specimen has passed through several hands from its extraction to when it is offered for sale, so this means that sometimes we cannot go ahead with a purchase or donation if we cannot meet our due diligence requirements.

[TP]: Who do you think is currently the most influential player in your industry and why?

[RH]: There is a lot of great research going on in the Gem industry, particularly in the area of origin determination. I think the Provenance Proof initiative from the Gübelin Gem Lab is particularly exciting as they are using some novel technologies including DNA-based nanoparticles, and blockchain to help retain the provenance information with a gem from mine to the consumer, and bring more transparency to the supply chain. These types of initiatives could really transform the gem industry.

[TP]: What other museums or institutions do you rate around the world for their mineral and gemstone collections?

[RH]: Certainly the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC, USA has an incredible collection with many iconic specimens. Locally of course is the V&A, the Tower of London and the Museum of London, and there are many wonderful regional museums with great collections. Around the world, others include the Royal Ontario Museum in Canada, Terra Mineralia in Freiberg, Germany, Naturhistorisches Museum Wien in Vienna, Austria, and the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, which has recently redone its mineral and gem hall. I have heard very good reviews of the new Gem and Mineral Museum at the University of Arizona, in Tucson, Arizona as well.

[TP]: Is it ever possible to call a gemstone ugly?
[RH]: I think this is a matter of personal taste, what I might find attractive may not be for other people, and some gems which I would not personally wear might be loved by someone else! My opinion is that you love the look of a gemstone, it doesn’t matter whether it is a natural gemstone, treated, synthetic or even a glass or plastic imitation, as long as you enjoy wearing it. That said I have a thing against the colour yellow – weird I know! So I would not chose a yellow gem as it would not be attractive to me.

[TP]: Finally, if you could meet your eighteen-year-old self, what three pieces of advice would you give her?

[RH]: Buy that apartment (oh the beauty of hindsight!).The grass is not always greener on the other side. As I have got older I have realised that many times when I thought someone else was doing something so much bigger or better than what I was achieving, they were actually thinking the same thing about me. It is so important to believe in ourselves and have confidence that we are doing amazing things.
Be sure to visit the Mineral Gallery of the Natural History Museum, London when you travel Europe!



Town or Countryside? Countryside
Favourite city? Barcelona
Your perfect dinner guest, dead or alive? Stephen Fry
If you could time travel to any era? Ancient Egypt
The best meal you’ve ever eaten is? Mussels at the Aux Armes de Bruxelles, Brussels
The one essential you can’t leave home without? Phone
Pet hate? When people don’t do their jobs properly
Biggest extravagance? Shoes
What would your gravestone read? Not so much what it would read but what it would be made of: orbicular granite for sure!
Favourite book? I love a murder mystery, especially Scandinavian authors such as Jo Nesbo; and also Terry Pratchett fantasy novels