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The museum has the largest collection of lunar meteorites in the world, including the five largest specimens of the moon on Earth.
The museum has the largest collection of lunar meteorites in the world, including the five largest specimens of the moon on Earth.Pamela Wright

BETHEL, Maine — The Maine Mineral & Gem Museum, years in the making, opened here Dec. 12 — and it’s astounding. The 15,000-square-foot world-class museum brings geology to life with dazzling displays and state-of-the-art interactive technology.

Don’t know much, care much about geology? No matter. This museum, designed for the 21st century and home to some 40,000 dazzling gems and minerals and 6,000 meteorites, will inform, inspire, and entertain you.

Consider this. It has the largest collection of lunar meteorites in the world, including the five largest specimens of the moon on Earth. More than NASA.

“We have more of the moon than the world’s 10 leading science museums combined,” says Lawrence Stifler, one of the founders of the museum. “Anyone who wants to study the moon would have to come here.”

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The museum also displays the oldest igneous rock known to exist — some 4.56 billion years old. And a meteorite that contains the oldest matter mankind can touch.

Pamela Wright

“That’s the oldest thing that you can hold in your hand in the entire solar system,” says Stifler, pointing to a fragment on display. “I’ve let school kids hold it.”

The museum has the world’s largest collection of meteorites from the giant asteroid Vesta, the largest collection of Martian meteorites in the world, and one of the largest meteorites containing extraterrestrial gemstones in the world. It’s home to the most comprehensive collection of gems and minerals found in Maine, including the first tourmaline ever unearthed in North America, on loan from the American Museum of Natural History. And, it has a collection of Apollo moon landing artifacts and memorabilia that rivals NASA’s, including the first photo taken of Earth from the moon.

And that’s just a small part of the museum and its story, which began years ago with the philanthropy of Stifler and his wife Mary McFadden, both Boston natives. Over several years, the couple created a conservation land trust of nearly 12,000 acres, that included the historic Bumpus Mine in Albany, Maine, home to famous beryl crystal discoveries in the 1920s. This led to the idea of building a museum to honor Maine’s mining history. And, that idea grew — and grew — from there.

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“We wanted to create something fun and informative to honor the history of mining in Maine, and the people involved from miners to scientists to lapidaries,” says Stifler. “But we also wanted to create a top-notch research facility.”

Visitors can watch a video and hear the story of a miner during the 1950s, who prompts you to set off a detonator, “blowing up” a portion of the mine.
Visitors can watch a video and hear the story of a miner during the 1950s, who prompts you to set off a detonator, “blowing up” a portion of the mine. Pamela Wright

The museum has an on-site laboratory with state-of-the-art technology and equipment, and a cast of top scientists, including Carl Francis, former curator of the Harvard Mineralogical and Geological Museum, William Simmons, one of the world’s top pegmatologists, and volcanologist Karen Webber. There are also two cosmoschemists, UCLA’s Alan Rubin and Henning Haack, the former curator of meteorites at the Natural History Museum of Denmark. They were both brought on board by Darryl Pitt of the Macovich Collection in New York City, who was responsible for acquiring 99 percent of the meteorites on display. The museum library also contains more than 10,000 books, maps, and recordings on Maine mineralogy, and has already generated 85 research projects and papers before its opening.

Why locate a world-class museum and research facility in this quiet corner of Maine? As visitors move through the museum’s story-telling corridors and rooms, they learn that the area has a rich history of gem and mineral mining, and is home to some of the world’s most fascinating pegmatite (think rocks with pockets of gems). The journey begins with displays of Maine’s iconic minerals: large specimens of unearthed aquamarine, tourmaline, amethyst, and quartz. Visitors move on to watch a video and hear the story of a miner during the 1950s, who prompts you to set off a detonator, “blowing up” a portion of the mine. Poosh!

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“We worked very hard in making the museum as interactive and educational as possible,” says museum director Barbra Barrett. “There are so many layers of discovery here.”

You can see the largest piece of moon on Earth at the museum, and other meteorites like the one pictured above, nicknamed “The Scream” after the famous Munch painting.
You can see the largest piece of moon on Earth at the museum, and other meteorites like the one pictured above, nicknamed “The Scream” after the famous Munch painting.Pamela Wright

There are 19 interactive exhibits, fabricated by 1220 Exhibits, which also did work on the National Football League Hall of Fame and the International Tennis Federation Hall of Fame. Everywhere, you’re invited to touch screens, push buttons, and watch videos to look closer and learn more. You can look at pieces of rocks through a microscope, swish for 3D, 360-degree views of displayed gems, “discover” an unearthed pocket of gems, watch a shooting star, and touch a moon rock.

There’s a space dedicated to the legendary Perham’s, a longstanding gem and mineral shop and museum, which closed in 2009, and information and specimens from the Bumpus Quarry, which laid the foundation for the museum. You’ll learn about the discoveries on Mount Mica, Maine, and the “Big Find” in Newry, Maine, a bonanza discovery of tourmaline, including the largest deposit ever found in North America. The museum has been able to repatriate and display many rare tourmaline specimens from the Newry discoveries. A darkened room showcases an eye candy display of jewelry created with Maine gemstones, including a Tiffany necklace make of Maine tourmaline and a 1,450-carat Smoky Quartz, the largest cut gemstone from Maine.

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And then you move to “outer space,” into a high-ceiling, bright room housing the Stifler Collection of Meteorites, arguably the finest contemporary collection of meteorites in the world. It’s the museum’s largest gallery. “We have everything in this meteorite gallery,” Stifler tells us on a guided visit. “Virtually anything that’s been found in the last 10 years, we had first dibs on.” Stifler noted that Pitt was responsible for procuring most of the specimens, engaging the best meteorite hunters in the world on the museum’s behalf.

There’s the largest piece of the moon on Earth; at 58.1 kilos, it’s nearly five times larger than anything NASA has. There are examples of the oldest matter mankind can touch; a sample of the Martian meteorite Black Beauty, which proved there was running water on Mars more recently than imagined, and the only meteorite known in a documented fatality, hitting a cow in Venezuela. And much more.

Put this on your “museums to visit before you die” list.

The Maine Mineral & Gem Museum, 99 Main St., Bethel, Maine, 207-824-3036, www.mainemineralmuseum.org, is open six days a week 10 a.m. to 5p.m., closed Tuesdays. $15 adults (ages 12 and up) $15, seniors $12, students $10, under 12 free.

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Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at bairwright@gmail.com