At first glance, a truck tire seems out of place among the monuments and tributes near the Arizona Capitol. But it isn’t just any truck tire. This one is as tall as Phoenix Suns star Amaré Stoudemire — standing on Steve Nash’s shoulders. It’s next to a shovel scoop that could hold a monster truck.
Big as they are, these items are only parts of massive machines that work in the state’s mines, and they are a reminder that Arizona continues to produce about two-thirds of the copper mined in the United States.
The Arizona Mining and Mineral Museum, which features the tire and scoop at its entrance, is looking to connect more people with an industry that helped build this state. Jane C. Rasmussen, the new curator, plans to add interactive stations and video displays so visitors can experience, among other things, smelting copper.
“I want people to learn more of the process of mining and to understand that it’s highly technological now,” said Rasmussen, who took over in August. “Many people have the misconception that it’s a pick-and-shovel thing.”
The museum also houses more than 3,000 rocks, fossils and minerals of all colors imaginable, including a 240-pound hunk of quartz and a bottle containing uranium. There are even some moon rocks and a meteor fragment.
The state Department of Mines and Mineral Resources operates the museum, which occupies the bottom floor of its headquarters. Madan M. Singh, the department’s director, said the museum’s goal is educating the public about the essential role minerals play in everyday life.
“It depicts the economic and visually gratifying aspects of minerals, especially since Arizona is fortunate enough to be blessed with a vast amount of mineral wealth,” Singh said.
The museum charges a $2 admission fee, and donations from the Phelps Dodge Foundation and sales in its gift shop help support operations. It opened in 1953 at the Arizona State Fairgrounds and moved to its current quarters in 1991. The museum traces its origins to 1884, when the state fair began displaying a collection of minerals that grew over the decades.
At present, the museum is mainly an attraction for children on school field trips; more than 23,000 visit each year. It attracts about 18,000 other visitors each year, including mineral collectors and rock hounds from around the world.
On a recent weekday, third-graders from Starlight Park Elementary School in Phoenix, armed with lists of mineral names, went on a treasure hunt through the museum.
“It’s cool!” 8-year-old Jose Arevalo said. “I like the quartz.”
In a nearby room, Doug Duffy manages a lapidary shop that teaches members of the public how to create rings, pendants and fine art. He has trained more than 500 people in his 18 years with the museum, but these days, he says, his students don’t seem as committed.
“It’s becoming a lost art,” Duffy said. “We’re reaching a point where less than half of the students stay through the course.”
One student who stayed is Borz Mahai, an electrical engineer from Chandler who was using the shop to polish a rock cross. Graduates of Duffy’s class may use the shop for $2 an hour.
“It’s stress-relieving, and I come here to relax,” Mahai said.
The museum reaches out to schools beyond Maricopa County with a program called “Have Rocks — Will Travel,” which brings mineral exhibits and speakers to classrooms statewide. Teachers also can request an “Identification Kit of Arizona Rocks and Minerals,” providing a few dozen samples of Arizona rocks and minerals.
“This is a wonderful experience for kids who don’t have the opportunity to see the museum in Phoenix,” said Rasmussen, the curator.
Department of Mines and Mineral Resources: www.mines.az.gov