A Beautiful Life Underground


By H. Byron Ballard


Diamonds may be a girl’s best friend but a visitor to the Colburn Earth Science Museum will find all sorts of mineral temptations, from an extraordinary aquamarine to an exquisite hunk of green mica.


The Colburn began as the Colburn Gem and Mineral Museum and I used to visit there when it was in the basement of the civic center. But Executive Director Vicky Ballard has me beaten. It was the first museum she ever visited and she went there when she was about 10 years old and it was on Coxe Avenue. She enjoys the sense of coming full circle when she remarks on her relationship to this sweet museum.


Colburn Museum staff.

Colburn Museum staff.

When I caught up with Vicky at the Colburn, we swapped stories about the kindly, sometimes crabby and always knowledgeable old rock hounds whose collections and passion for minerals provided the genesis of this gem of a museum.


In 1931, Retired banker and confirmed rock hound Burnham S. Colburn, along with his brother William, helped found the Southern Appalachian Mineral Society. The club is still in existence and holds monthly meetings as well as special field trips. The Colburn Gem and Mineral Museum was organized in 1960 and featured Mr. Colburn’s impressive collection.


It’s quite a different world today, although the Colburn is still in a basement—this time it’s the basement of Pack Place Education, Arts and Science Center on Pack Square in downtown Asheville. It’s a sophisticated space—the Welcome Desk is surmounted by a screen that takes the observer on an electronic journey through the wonders of nature in western North Carolina. And a visitor may be greeted by any of the staff members, who all are adept at the welcome part of this business.


The crusty old rock hounds are no longer in evidence and the skilled and resourceful staff is now all women, women who are rightly proud of their decidedly non-hierarchical working relationship. They do feel an obligation to the original mission of the Colburn, however. “You got to leave with them that brung you,” Vicky laughs. That philosophy of continuity and history gives the Colburn a solid foundation as it looks to its future.


When you step into the Colburn, as I did on a wintry Friday afternoon, you will be greeted warmly. I was doubly lucky to be offered a slice of cake and a cup of tea. Amber Fischer and Wendy Punshon were setting up for a children’s program the following day—“we’re making snow,” Amber explained—so Vicky, bookkeeper/executive assistant Bonnie Findley and I headed upstairs to settle in Vicky’s office.


GemThe Colburn has seen a lot of changes in Asheville in its fifty years of existence and when it made the transition to an earth sciences museum, the focus turned to promoting science literacy. The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) recently released the results of its most recent test—a test that evaluates reading, mathematics and science for 15 year olds. The US didn’t perform very well and usually doesn’t rank as highly as other developed countries.


Vicky spoke at length about the recent findings of the PISA tests and shook her head. “We need to be able to think critically,” she explained. “Students aren’t getting those skills in our test-driven public school systems. They aren’t being encouraged or taught to observe and analyze and draw conclusions.”


The Colburn has been involved in pre-school science literacy since 2011, when it launched a series of free programs that were made available at public libraries in Buncombe and Madison counties.


The impact of those PISA scores is not lost on the program developers at the Colburn. Early childhood development is a niche for their programs to expand into and they are brainstorming the traveling programs that will be made available to pre-schools in several WNC counties. “Children are natural scientists,” Bonnie said.


The retooling of the Colburn has paid off in a 22% increase in memberships in the last two years.


“Our shareholders are the people of western North Carolina—that’s who we serve. We want every child to be excited about their place in the world. You can’t do that if you don’t understand the planet that we live on,” explained Vicky.


Everyone on staff hastened to tell me they aren’t scientists although they are very knowledgeable about it. What they really mean is that they don’t have degrees in the fields, although you wouldn’t know it by listening to them. They are primarily educators who have strong skills in curriculum and program development. “We want to spread education to a larger population,” Wendy said from her desk on the main floor.


Vicky shares the staffs’ thoughts on why a warm welcome is important in a science museum. “Because we aren’t scientists, we approach it through how it affects our visitors. We want to remove the distance between people and science. We want people to feel absolutely comfortable here, as if they are being welcomed into our home.”


Under a cheeky sign that announces “Crystal Pocket Gift Shop,” Wendy has some thoughts about the work of the Colburn and about the museum’s future. She gestures to a box of rocks behind her desk chair. “What is more experiential than science? We do something as simple as classifying rocks and the kids are thrilled. I wish we could do more outreach and expand our programming.” She smiles a bright smile. “We create thinkers.”


There was a sudden commotion in the front of the museum and Natalie Grinnell arrived with a freshly-opened geode. (Cracking geodes is one of the adventures on offer at the Colburn.) Vicky identified the minerals encased within—brought to the light of day by the red rock-cracking tool. The young girl who had picked that particular geode was obviously delighted with it and most of the staff gathered around to exclaim over her excellent choice. The girl and her family left soon after, carefully holding their treasure.


Natalie and Vicky stood at the front desk, watching them go. “All the unknown, all the potential,” Natalie murmured. And we all nodded.


The staff at the Colburn Earth Science Museum have dreams and plans for the future—more exhibit space and some traveling exhibits, additional classroom space, a bigger presence in the community and enough square footage to grow, to flourish and to thrive.


And they dream of windows and sunlight. They are ready to leave their life underground, no matter how beautiful, and catch some rays.


Visit: ColburnMuseum.org



H. Byron Ballard, BA, MFA, is a ritualist, teacher, speaker and writer. She has served as a featured speaker and teacher at Sacred Space Conference, Pagan Unity Festival, Southeast Women’s Herbal Conference, Glastonbury Goddess Conference and other gatherings. Her writings have appeared in print and electronic media. She blogs as Asheville’s Village Witch and as The Village Witch for Witches and Pagans Magazine. Byron is currently at work on “Earth Works: Eight Ceremonies for a Changing Planet.” Contact her at www.myvillagewitch.com, info@myvillagewitch.com

Sandi Tomlin-Sutker
Written by Sandi Tomlin-Sutker