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New downtown gem museum nears completion as pandemic clouds its plans to open
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New downtown gem museum nears completion as pandemic clouds its plans to open

New space at historic courthouse is three times larger than the University of Arizona's existing mineral display

Tucson’s new gem and mineral museum will be ready to sparkle just as soon as it is safe for people to come see it.

Staff members are now placing rare rocks and finished jewelry inside the display cases at the newly completed Alfie Norville Gem & Mineral Museum at the historic Pima County Courthouse downtown.

Museum manager Eric Fritz expects the University of Arizona-run facility to be completely finished and ready to open within the next month, though it’s unclear when the public will be invited inside.

“That’s the golden question. We’re kind of following along with the rest of the world right now,” Fritz said. “Everyone hopes it will be soon. I don’t know what soon means.”

The gem and mineral museum is just the latest new attraction waiting to make its post-pandemic debut at the historic courthouse.

The Southern Arizona Heritage and Visitor Center and the January 8th Memorial also remain closed due to coronavirus concerns.

No opening dates have been set for any of those attractions, said Lisa Josker, director of facilities management for Pima County.

“It’s the same answer I’ve been giving for a while now: We’re still waiting for the COVID numbers to go down,” she said. “The numbers are going to drive it.”

The memorial to the Jan. 8, 2011, mass shooting in Tucson was completed early this year but has yet to open for public viewing. The Heritage and Visitor Center opened its doors for the first time in January 2020, only to be closed about six weeks later because of the pandemic.

Once it’s safe for crowds of people to venture back into such public spaces, Josker said she hopes to see everything at the historic courthouse open at the same time, maybe with a big event to mark the occasion.

The 12,000-square-foot gem and mineral museum features more than 2,200 specimens from collections held by the UA and its loan partners. There are galleries and showcases devoted to the evolution of minerals, the geology of Arizona and Mexico, gemstones, jewelry and gem science, with interactive activities for visitors of all ages.

Fritz said the facility also has another 9,000 square feet at its disposal for a classroom, a research lab and storage.

The new space is literally bringing the UA’s mineral collection up from the basement. For more than a decade, the collection lived downstairs at the Flandrau Science Center and Planetarium, where it was housed in basic university-style wooden cases.

The new museum is about triple the size, with state-of-the-art displays and exhibits that Fritz said should be enough to impress even the international experts who descend on the Old Pueblo each year for the Tucson Gem, Mineral & Fossil Showcase.

And for anyone thinking of an “Ocean’s 11” style heist, the museum features cutting-edge sensors and alarms — on top of the usual security found in a government building — to protect its rare and valuable rocks.

“That’s the No. 1 thing someone wants to know about before they loan you a million dollars worth of jewels,” Fritz explained, adding with a laugh, “I think there are easier targets out there, but I’m not a criminal so I don’t know.”

There have been minerals on display at the UA for more than a century, and Fritz said the new museum will include several rock samples that have been kept at the university since not long after they were mined in Bisbee in the late 1800s.

The facility downtown will also showcase a number of specimens that have never been shown before. To keep things fresh, Fritz said, about 20% of the exhibits will be swapped out each year.

The museum is named for the late Alfie Norville, a co-founder of the Gem and Jewelry Exchange show that runs during the annual Gem, Mineral & Fossil Showcase. An initial gift from the Norville family helped make the project possible.

Construction began in 2018, with the museum slated to open in the fall of 2020. When the pandemic made that impossible, the new goal was to unveil it during this year’s Gem, Mineral & Fossil Showcase — at least until that event was also canceled by COVID-19.

Fritz said the latest delay has given him and his staff all the time they need to make sure everything is perfect for their eventual opening.

“We’re going to be ready,” he said, whenever that might be.

Contact reporter Henry Brean at hbrean@tucson.com or 520-573 4283. On Twitter: @RefriedBrean


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