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New York Exhibit Explores Historical Fascination With Gold


Gold prices have reached record highs this year, fueling new interest in gold as an investment. But the allure extends far beyond its monetary value. Its importance as a natural resource, as a commodity and as a status symbol is the subject of an exhibit in New York. From VOA's New York Bureau, Correspondent Barbara Schoetzau has a report written by Amanda Cassandra.

The gold exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History features 700 natural and ornamental pieces of gold, tracing the precious metal's journey from its formation through the mining process to its use in various industries and trades throughout the centuries.

Museum president Ellen Futter says the Gold exhibit is part of an ongoing series that explores the connection between the science and culture of natural materials. Previous exhibits have focused on amber, diamonds and pearls. But Futter says gold has an unparalleled status in society.

"Athletes strive for gold medals, kindergartners look for gold stars, musicians hope for gold records," she says. "Prospectors panned in the Wild West, pirates pillaged for it and Renaissance painters applied it to their canvases as halos to indicate supreme holiness. And, in the simple wedding band, it is worn as a representation of the steadfastness of love. Gold, how could one mineral have so many associations? As Shakespeare aptly wrote of gold: What can it not do or undo?"

George Milling-Stanley is a manager at the World Gold Council, an association of the world's leading gold producers dedicated to the promotion of gold. He says although 78 percent of all gold mined is used for jewelry, the exhibition highlights the multitude of uses for the precious metal.

"The exhibits include the visor from the helmet Neil Armstrong wore when he went to the moon," he notes. "It looks a beautiful gold color; it is not done for the beauty. It is done for the functionality. It reflects the heat best, it reflects radiation best and it was the safest possible material they could use for those visors for people traveling into space. The fact that gold doesn't react with anything in the environment means it has the most amazing list of medical and scientific uses."

Co-curator Charles Spencer heads the museum's anthropology department. He says gold has amazing natural properties, but its real value comes from society.

"In the exhibit you will see a 4,500-year-old golden headband from Iran," he explains. "A century old gold mask pendant from Ghana. A 3,000-year-old gold bottle from Peru, a 1,200-year-old chief's gold helmet from Panama, a 700-year-old gold bell in the form of the Aztec fire deity from Mexico and a century old coffee pot from New York City. We do celebrate [cultural] diversity in the gold exhibit. And yet, cross-cutting this diversity there is also a unity that I think reflects the central meaning of gold to all the peoples who have used it. This central meaning has to do with the use of gold as a status symbol to transmit information about the relative social position of the people who possessed it, wore it and spent it."

Gold is coveted because of its rarity.

Scientists say that only 152,000 metric tons of gold have ever been mined since the metal's discovery over 6,000 years ago. In comparison, each year 907 million metric tons of iron is mined.

Co-curator James Webster says the quest for gold by humans led to major migrations to previously unexplored regions of land.

"In South Africa, in Australia, in the United States, in Canada and in Russia, people on their own would strike it out [seek it out]," he says. "It was not a government or state that was looking for gold. Individuals could go out, stake a claim and work hard and find gold on their own. And that really led to a lot of expansions, settlement of portions of the periphery, the coastlines in much of Australia, much of California. These remote terrains, these remote regions were really settled and developed because of this search for gold and the people who had to supply the materials. The food, the other materials for the miners themselves."

Milling-Stanley says the historical fascination with gold has grown, as more people have been able to afford the precious metal.

"Out of every billion atoms in the world, only five would be gold, if we were to take a representative sample so it is extremely rare," he adds. "It has this amazing list of unique properties that give it all of these diverse, different functions so that there is something to appeal to every possible culture. It used to be the metal for kings and emperors and gradually has become more available that means that people like you and I can wear gold jewelry. It has become a democratic metal."

The treasures on display include examples of the first gold coins minted in ancient Turkey and the largest nugget of gold ever found in the Western Hemisphere, the "Boot of Cortez," weighing 12 kilograms.

Portions of the exhibit are also interactive, including a scale that visitors can step on to find out their weight in gold, one of the few times one might be happy to see a high number.

The world's largest accumulation of monetary gold, some $147 billion worth of gold bullion, is held not far from the exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History, in the vault of the Federal Reserve Bank in New York.

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