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Tears of the Gods

New Academy of Sciences amber exhibit mixes art, science, history

By Zack Stentz

For at least 11,000 years humanity has been fascinated by the strange substance called amber. Translucent, electrostatically charged, rock-hard yet flammable and aromatic, amber commanded top drachma from the ancient Greeks, who referred to the objects they shipped down from the Baltics and fashioned into jewelry as "tears of the Gods."

But long before Jurassic Park was a cash register's ring in Michael Crichton's ear, keen observers were interested in the scientific aspects of amber, especially the substance's amazing abilities to preserve plants, insects and small animals trapped in the hardened sap. Pliny the Elder discounted any supernatural explanations for amber's origins when he questioned how such a pure, allegedly divine material ended up filled with dead bugs.

Now both the scientific and artistic sides of amber are on display at an Academy of Sciences exhibit titled Amber: Window to the Past. The show represents a step out for the Academy of Sciences, an institution not accustomed to housing sculptures and other objets d'art among the dinosaur skeletons and electric eels. "We were very apprehensive about the artistic aspects of the exhibit," acknowledges Dr. David Grimaldi, the show's curator.

An enthusiastic, preternaturally youthful entomologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, Grimaldi is in town to oversee the setup of the exhibit's San Francisco leg (after here, the show goes on to the Smithsonian, then Milwaukee). "Especially in a city like New York, you can really get hammered if you don't get every detail just right," he says. "We ended up making our own selections of which pieces to include, with some help from outside people. We pulled in some amber art experts here and there."

Encompassing the science, art and political history of amber, the exhibit offers a unique opportunity for both the aficionados of amber jewelry and those fascinated by the prehistoric world captured in the fossilized ooze to learn more about the substance. "That's exactly what we ended up finding in New York," Grimaldi says, "that people interested in the art of amber came away appreciating the scientific aspects of it. And vice versa, of course."

Walking through the dimly lit exhibit hall among the golden, luminous objects, it's often difficult to tell where artistic excellence leads off and scientific fascination begins. The human skill and artistry that produced a delicately carved and hollowed-out amber perfume bottle from China is certainly awesome to behold, but no more so than the natural processes that resulted in a gecko hanging suspended in a natural amber deposit, its body preserved perfectly, right down to the adhesive pads on its tiny toes.

Grimaldi points with pride to one of the exhibit's highlights, an amber-encased tree frog that still looks lifelike enough to leap right off the pedestal, despite having been dead for tens of millions of years. "This is one of the most valuable pieces of amber in the world," he says. "It's one of only four known frogs preserved intact."

And to Grimaldi, the amber exhibit's triumph also represents a new and exciting way for museums to bridge the gap among the sciences, art and history by mounting shows that weave these themes together in an engaging, organic manner. "We've learned a really valuable lesson, and the exhibit has really given us a lot of ideas on how to design future events," he says. "The curators really loved being able to tell the whole story. We're incorporating some of the things we learned into a future exhibit we're doing on the natural history of diamonds, where we'll deal with the scientific and artistic aspects of diamonds."

"In a way, though," he adds, "the amber show will be a difficult act to follow. Amber is almost unique in that it's such a fascinating substance on so many different levels."

Amber: Window to the Past is on display through April 15 at the California Academy of Sciences, Golden Gate Park. Hours are 10am­5pm seven days a week; admission is $7 adults, $4 students, seniors and ages 12­17, $1.50 for ages 6­11, and free for ages 5 and under. Call 415/750-7145 or log on to the web site for more information.

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From the March 1997 issue of the Metropolitan

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