Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

AM’s new Minerals Gallery explores beauty

Brandon Routh in Superman Returns. The interior of the Australian Museum featured in some of the movie’s scenes. CREDIT: WARNER BROS PICTURES.

Steve Meacham, Why loot from ‘Sydney’s great diamond heist’ was sent back to its owner, The Sydney Morning Herald, 4 December 2022

The Australian Museum is an unlikely film location for any superhero movie. But in Superman Returns – the 2006 movie starring Brandon Routh as Clark Kent/Superman, the disgraced Kevin Spacey as arch villain Lex Luthor and a posthumous appearance by Marlon Brando as Jor-El – Australia’s oldest museum appeared alongside the Art Gallery of NSW.

In the movie, Luthor steals a shard of kryptonite from Metropolis’s Museum of Natural History. The art gallery’s famous colonnades double as the exterior while the interiors of Luthor’s theft feature the grand old dame of College Street. Which has led to an abiding schoolboy myth that the Australian Museum’s incredible gem gallery – one of the finest in the world – contains the only known substance that can strip away Superman’s invulnerability.

Quite wrong, of course. The museum’s specimen is actually Fluorite, an understandable mistake given its green and perfectly formed shape. This month (December 9), the museum opens its new minerals gallery, along with a beautifully photographed coffee table book packed with ripping yarns about the various eccentrics who have amassed the collection since 1827.

As Kim McKay, the museum’s hands-on director and chief executive, says the collection explains “a truly amazing story of our planet’s geological history, giving a ‘deep time’ perspective … [unveiling] how the Australian continent was formed and a ‘social history’ related to its exploitation and mining industries”.

Why should you care? Look around you. How many people are wearing jewellery – precious to them – featuring gold, silver, diamonds, sapphires, emeralds, opal or amber?

How many craftsmen and women have fashioned such gems to enhance human esteem and commitment over the millennia? Beautiful though such human artefacts are, nothing compares to the artistry nature has created itself. Some of the items photographed in the book would win awards if they were entered into a sculpture competition: others would draw suspicion from social media crackpots that aliens must have landed.

Ross Pogson, from the Australian Museum, holds its Fluorite crystal sample, which is sometimes mistaken for Kryptonite. CREDIT: JAMES ALCOCK/AUSTRALIAN MUSEUM.

“Only” 1800 of the museum’s 80,000 mineral and rock specimens will be displayed in the new gallery, but they are as good as you’ll see anywhere. Some of the discovery stories are equally bizarre. Who knew Australia’s copper mining industry – currently worth about $3.5 billion and the sixth-biggest Australian export – was unearthed by a wombat?

Naturally, the wombat got no credit. Officially shepherd James Boor recognised what the wombat had dug up in 1859 on what is now called South Australia’s Copper Coast. Then there’s the bizarre story of the gold bar nugget, discovered in 1887 and – at 10.7 kg – the only remaining example of a large gold nugget from the NSW Gold Rush.

Discovered by three miners in a disused shaft near Gulgong, for years it was displayed by the NSW government as a symbol of the state’s wealth and opportunities. Then it disappeared in the 1930s – finally resurfacing, having been used by NSW Treasury officials as a cricket stump!

Ross Pogson, the museum’s Mineralogy Collection Manager Geoscience, has his own favourite story which ties in with Lex Luthor’s fictional theft in Superman Returns. On the evening of March 30, 1968 a thief lay in wait until the museum closed its doors, prompting what became known to the afternoon tabloids as “Sydney’s Great Diamond Heist”.

The museum’s “Orloff diamond” is “half the size of a hen’s egg”. CREDIT:JAMES ALCOCK/AUSTRALIAN MUSEUM.

He (or she) smashed a minerals collection display case, making off with 17 famous gems. They included two of the world’s most recognisable diamonds, the Koh-i-Noor and the Orloff (“half the size of a hen’s egg” Pogson says) – both found in India. The thief was never found, the “diamonds” were never resold, nor were the police much interested.

Why? Because several of “the gems” were eventually returned in a brown paper tied up with string and a note saying: “These are not real!”

“What he stole were glass models, purchased for three pounds from a Sydney pawnbroker in 1900,” Pogson explains.

If he had done his research he would have discovered the Koh-i-Noor is part of a crown in the possession of the British royal family.

“And the Orloff diamond was given to Catherine the Great by her lover Count Gregory Orloff and has been incorporated into the Imperial Sceptre of the Russian Crown Jewels since 1784.”

The lesson? “It always pays to read the museum labels,” Pogson advises.


An earlier version of this article quoted Ross Pogson saying the Koh-i-Noor was part of a crown to be worn by King Charles during his coronation. In fact it’s part of a crown originally worn by the Queen Mother and possibly due to be worn by Queen Consort Camilla. Its inclusion has not been confirmed.

Council of Australasian Museum Directors c/o Lynley Crosswell, Museums Victoria, GPO Box 666, Melbourne VIC 3001, © CAMD 2023
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