Interview with Dr. Paula Mikkelsen

Part of the Pearls exhibition.

1. What is your interest in this particular subject, invertebrates, and why did you want to create an exhibition on pearls, specifically?

Well, I go by several different titles, depending on, really, who I'm talking to and what the scenario is. I'm an invertebrate zoologist, no doubt about that, meaning I work on animals that don't have a backbone. It's a very, very broad subject that includes many different kinds of animals. I'm a marine biologist, and that conveys ideas about scuba-diving, and whales, and fish, and things like that, which isn't entirely what I do, but I do work in the marine realm. And most specifically I'm a malacologist. A malacologist is a person that works on mollusks, specifically--most commonly known as seashells to most people. So I'm very interested in, of course, telling people about mollusks. There are many people that still believe they're just simply pretty rocks that wash up on the beach. Many people don't realize that they are created by living animals, that mollusks are animals just as much as whales, or fish, or horses are animals. So this exhibit allows us to teach about mollusks. It also allows us to teach about mollusks in a variety of different pathways, allowing us to bring in different audiences. The subject of pearls is incredibly wide, people that are interested in biology or marine biology, of course, will come see it, that's easy. But people that are interested in history or anthropology will also come see it because of the huge, huge history of pearl use, not just in jewelry but in textiles, in religion, in medicine--many people in the East, the Orient, the traditional Orient, actually use pearl medicine or eat pearls every day as a kind of vitamin. So we hope to capture their imagination that way. And then we have aquaculture, people that are interested in pearl culturing, that may want to learn more about that. And of course there's the gemology, people coming to see the jewelry. And we're hoping we can teach those people about how pearls are made by living animals as well.

2. What other exhibits have you worked on here at the Museum?

This is my first major exhibit. I've only been at the Museum for five years. But I've worked, I've played a small role in several other exhibits, mainly identifying shells that have been embellished for other purposes. I worked a little on the diamond exhibit, there was a scallop shell that was studded with diamonds, made into a brooch; I identified the scallop. There were a couple of items in Body Art that were made from shells and I was able to identify the shells there. I worked a bit with the Biodiversity hall installation, with the mollusk portion of that hall. But this is really my first big one.

3a. What do you enjoy most about being a curator at the Museum?

I think this Museum more than any that I know of, or have been personally associated with, really, really supports the research that goes on here. Many museums, and I don't mean to speak down to them at all, but many museums have the research going on but really promote the exhibits and educational, and you can probably do that without the research going on. We don't. [While] we promote the exhibit that's going on here to the public, the research is very very well supported here in terms of facilities and funding, and we bring the research going on here to the public better than, I think, any other museum in the world does, in terms of our exhibits and educational programs. Every exhibit that goes on the floor requires a curator involved in it. That's an almost unique situation in my experience.

3b. What do you enjoy most about the Museum itself?

I very much appreciate the exhibits at this Museum. I'm a museum-goer. I go to museums everywhere, I love the shops, of course, but, the exhibits are absolutely fabulous here. Our exhibits team that I've only recently become associated with, is absolutely superb. We've have some very, very professional people down there that have wonderful imaginations on how to bring any subject, as dry as it can get, to the public and make it interesting. I very much admire them.

4. How do you put an exhibit like this together? What are the steps involved?

Well first and foremost you have to research the subject. It's actually rather interesting, the four curators involved in this exhibit, two from this Museum and two from the Field Museum in Chicago, none of us were experts on pearls, starting out on this. We all had an interest in it, we all had basic knowledge, but none of us were experts. We feel we've become experts. [So you learned as well.] We learned; we've had a four year process putting this together. You start by reading, reading everything you can get your hands on, the books that have been written over the years on pearls. We go into--of course because we're scientists--we go into what we call the primary literature, into the journals and the scientific literature on the subject. We sought to interview or meet as many people associated with pearls as we could, both here in New York, and really anywhere that we could reach out. Jewelers, dealers, collectors, the gemological associations, and they were really critical contacts for putting us in contact with the people that we needed to meet. Because not everything is in a book. Absolutely not everything is in a book. We could not have done this exhibit, at least not to the extent that we have, without venturing out and traveling, which of course was an important part of it, and really talking to the people that are doing the pearl culturing, that are doing the pearl buying, and so on, and that are researching the history behind pearls.

5. How do you do your preliminary research? What kind of team are you working with and how do you find those people? Where do you start?

We really started by reading. And not only the books and the scientific literature, we also read the web, you know, searches? The web is a wonderful tool, and I think I've learned to use it more extensively in this project because the subject is so broad. I'm not an anthropologist, I'm not a gemologist, I'm not a historian, so I had to do a lot of reaching into arenas that are not really my specialty. And you of course see the names. And then we've had some very good assistants; we have a woman by the name of Kathleen Moore who is our contact coordinator. She's been essential in making contact for us, she gets on the phone and calls people up, "Can our curators meet you?" And we've met some wonderful people and in the pearl industry they really want us to show off their product. So we've had no trouble whatsoever in arranging meetings with people, they've been very generous with their time, bringing us into their offices, showing us what they do, so that was really essential, and of course the 4 curators all bring different aspects of their backgrounds to the subject. Neil Landman, the lead curator, is a paleontologist primarily, with a very, very strong interest and background in art history. So kind of an interesting combination. Myself and Rudiger Bieler, from the Field Museum, are marine biologists, malacologists; he has slightly different strengths than I do, we both had to learn a lot about freshwater mollusks, which is not really our specialty, our strict specialty. And then Bennet Bronson at the Field Museum is an anthropologist, specializing in Asian anthropology, so he has really brought us into an arena that we knew nothing about, and he's been an essential part of our [?] in portraying the use of pearls through the centuries, millennia.

6. Tell us about your travels during research for the Pearls exhibit. Do you have any anecdotes you can tell us?

Our travels were very exciting, of course. We did a lot of rather normal traveling, if you want to put it that way, for a curator to go visit other museums and ask our colleagues there, what do you have of pearls? And our colleagues have been very forthcoming with opening the drawers and really searching around, what are our best pearls? And we searched throughout Europe especially, throughout this country, somewhat in Asia, for literally the best items that our colleagues have in their collections. Not only shells and pearls themselves, but also items made with pearls, textiles and the artifacts that will be used to illustrate the use of pearls.

6a. What countries did you visit?

So we visited countries all over Europe. But then, the really fascinating part, especially for me as a biologist, was visiting the pearl farms. We were able to visit--we had four major trips. One to Japan, one to Tahiti, French Polynesia, one to Australia, and one to China. These are four big pearl producing countries, and each of those trips was wonderful, and so different. Japan is the traditional, what most people think of as pearl culture. That was the beginning of modern pearl culture, and I'll stress that word "modern", because pearl culturing was done way before [?] Mikimoto invented it in Japan. But that was kind of the birthplace of modern pearl culturing, and so we saw that first, to get the background. Then we went on to Tahiti, and the black pearls, of course, and that was as exotic as you can imagine it is. It was lovely, and just seeing the variety of colors, and the sizes, and the oysters there are much, much larger, it produces much bigger pearls, and just the enormous, wonderful range of colors, beautiful, beautiful pearls. Then we went to Australia, which is right now the leader in South Sea pearls, and visited with the major company there. These are the really big pearls because their oyster is even bigger, and in whites and gold colors, absolutely stunning pearls, very high-tech operation, most of their perliculture happens offshore, so they use a lot of oceanographic ships, and of course Rudiger Bieler and I were in our element on a research vessel, so to speak. But they do everything offshore as opposed to on land, and so that was a very different setting, and very very high-tech, very modern laboratory ships, hospital ships [?]. So then we went to China, and I think that's my anecdote if I want to pick one experience that was so startling to me, just the contrast between the hi-tech modern operation in Australia, and the grassroots organization of the pearl industry in China. China is right now the queen of pearl-producing nations in sheer volume. China is producing freshwater pearls in numbers that are astounding everybody. Just bags and bags and bags and bags. So while Australia is producing very large, single pearls and nurturing each one with an enormous amount of individual care, China is rolling them out of the ditches in the sidewalks, and just absolutely beautiful, beautiful pearls. Tons of them.

6b. So would you say it's quantity versus quality?

No, I would not, at first that was my impression, and I think that's the way I think we all went into it, you know, let's see how they're making so many pearls. But their quality is also improving rapidly, we made a quick stop in Hong Kong and visited the pearl merchants in Hong Kong, which is where most of the Chinese pearls are brought through onto the market. The best of the Chinese product right now are rivaling the marine pearls in quality and size. And that is astonishing. China's pearls as you might know started out as kind of small, white, crinkly things, called Rice Krispie pearls, very low quality, very low price. They're just in the space of time that we've been doing this exhibit, putting the exhibit together, the quality has risen dramatically. From at first kind of nugget shaped pearls, much better in luster, more colors, not just white but pinks and purples and oranges, peach colors. And then suddenly oval, what they call "potato" pearls, which are kind of round but they're squashed sideways so they kind of line up nicely on a necklace. And now up to 17mm absolutely perfectly spherical, very high-luster pearls. But again, in this wonderful range of colors, which has a lot of the marine pearl producers worried, because as a serious competitor they're still producing in vast quantities, which of course keeps their prices down, to an extent that everybody can afford pearls today, really for the first time in history. So it's a phenomenon. But I think the contrast with Australia doing everything offshore, with a very big pearl oyster, nurturing every single specimen, on very elaborate, very modern hospital ships, and then going to China and seeing it in freshwater which of course is a very different setting, but literally in ditches by the side of the road, or in rice paddies, we call them pearl paddies, because literally farmers with rice paddies and other vegetable crops and then a few pearls on the side. And the water looks like mud, it's not polluted in that sense of the word, it's very high-nutrient, they're throwing in tofu, they're throwing duck dung into the water, they're throwing lime into the water, and all this is just to feed these freshwater clams for a long, long time. In most of the marine settings they're raising the pearls for 2 years, maybe 3. In China they're raising them for 5 or 6 years so the pearls are very big, very lustrous, and just it's an amazing phenomenon, the improvement of the quality of the pearl over a very very short time.

6c. Are they fairly new to the industry, are they still learning?

They're still learning. The first Chinese pearls - China really invented pearl culture. In the 5th century, Chinese were inserting little molds, usually in the shape of a Buddha, or a little fish, or some other form, into a freshwater pearl mussel between the shell and the flesh and just letting it sit there and get covered over by the mother of pearl or nacre inside the shell. That was being produced way way before anything else, so they were really the first pearl culturists. The first Rice Krispie pearls, that technology was imported from Japan. Japan's first really marketable product hit the streets around late 1920's-1930's. From there the technology was taken, really everywhere, by the Japanese, and hit China late 50's. It was at first very heavily governmentally regulated. So the product was not really developing all that fast. The industry was deregulated in the 70's or 80's, I don't recall the exact date, but since that time, the development of the industry has really increased exponentially.

7. If you could take away just one important point from this exhibit, what would you want people to know?

I'm hoping that people will realize that pearls are produced by living animals, mollusks. Whether they're natural pearls or cultured pearls, they're still produced by a living animal. And in order to make a pearl, in pearl culturing, you have to take care of that animal, you have to keep it alive for a very long period of time. And I hope people will realize that not only that mollusks are living animals, but that pearls are a product of living animals.

8. What's your favorite fact about pearls and why?

My favorite fact about pearls is something that I didn't know, going into this, and I'm still fascinated by this nugget of information. The myth is that pearls are formed around a grain of sand. And that's still published in many, many books and on many web pages--it's absolutely, positively not true. Pearls are hardly ever formed around anything inorganic, such as a grain of sand or a rock. They're usually formed around something organic: they're often formed around a parasite. Natural pearls, that is. And in order to make a pearl, most pearls are formed by a bead, but you also have to insert a piece of tissue from another pearl oyster or pearl mussel--one animal will be used to snip off a little piece of tissue--and that's inserted with the bead, and it's that that produces the pearl. And in fact the bead is unnecessary. In China they do not insert beads. They only insert the little piece of tissue. So inside every single pearl, there is an element that is organic. So pearls are not only produced by living animals, but they're produced because of them.

9a. What were your early scientific influences, were you interested in science as a child? What scientists did you admire growing up?

I've been thinking about that, I don't really have a hero in science, but I had some very influential teachers, in junior high school and high school, and I think that's really where we have to reach out and catch--high school may even be too late, but junior high school and late elementary school, we really have to catch the attention of children to bring them into a career in science. I had a math teacher, actually, in junior high school, I was immediately going to become a computer programmer, whatever that meant in the 1960's. And in high school, a very very charismatic, effective general science teacher. In college I wanted to be a veterinarian. I collected shells--I collected everything except maybe matchbook covers and bottle caps, during my life I collected everything, so I grew up as a collector--but I was not a shell collector from day one, many professional malacologists always wanted to be a malacologist. I did not. I wanted to be a veterinarian. That didn't work out, for a variety of reasons, and in the mid-1970's I moved to Florida. You cannot live in Florida without picking up shells on the beach. And I fell into it feet first. I joined a shell club, they taught me how to collect them, I was lucky enough to land in a position working in the marine laboratory, [?] Marine Laboratory, and eventually decided to go back to school and get a degree in that. And sort of uphill from there.

9b. So it's never too late?

It's never too late - absolutely not. I'm often asked by students and college students, you know, how do you get where you are? I think one key factor is being flexible. Saying I'm going to live in Florida, is difficult, because in this field, there isn't a marine malacologist position in every city. I grew up in Maine, I went to school and lived in Florida for 20 years, I lived in Delaware for a couple of years, and now I'm here. You have to be able to go where the jobs are and be serendipitous, take advantage of volunteering opportunities, take advantage of internships and things like that that build your resume, and make you attractive. And to be assertive too, call people and say 'Can I meet you?' That's very important I think, and that also captures the attention of potential employers, searching for an assistant, you know, we look for somebody who is motivated. So you really have to be flexible though, in science, and I think in general, you can't--unlike a career such as medicine or computer science, there isn't one in every town. You have to really go where the job leads you.

10. What is the next exhibit you're planning, if any? Do you have plans to curate any other exhibits in the future?

I'm already involved in the next exhibit, astonishingly, even after the intensity of Pearls for the past five years. The Museum will be renovating the Hall of Ocean Life. I believe the target date to reopen the hall will be Fall of 2003. Myself and several other curators here are involved in that. And of course, my job, is to bring mollusks and other invertebrates into the hall. Right now our Hall of Ocean Life is largely fish and marine mammals. The big whale of course, will remain, it's not going anywhere. And the wonderful dioramas on the first floor of our Hall of Ocean Life will remain largely, although many of them are being renovated and updated. But the second floor, which is now our Hall of Fishes, will be completely redone. Fishes will of course play a significant role. But my job and the job of the entire team is to bring other marine life, not only marine invertebrates but marine plants into the picture, and to talk about them in a significant way. We're going to be talking about them, though, not group by group by group. That's not really the most engaging way to tell those stories. We're going to be telling it on the basis of habitat. So habitat after habitat after habitat, we'll talk about the animals and plants that are typical of those habitats, and in that process we'll be talking about the animals themselves and what makes them unique. We hope to make it more interesting that way rather than just a textbook of what is a crab, and what is a mollusk. We're also going to be talking about the physical properties of the oceans, the seas, the tides, the salinity, and features of that 3-dimensional universe that make it so unique. And of course, just as relevantly, we'll be talking about the impact of humans have on the sea, the sea is not untouched by human activity, and marine conservation will be a significant subject.

11. What causes the color of a pearl, you had said that China is producing many different colors, how does that come about?

The color of a pearl is mainly produced by the type of mollusk that is used to produce it. And I think this will be very, very evident when one walks into the exhibit on pearls. There are many mollusks that have produced pearls naturally but they have been collected in order to find natural pearls. But there is an equal number of them, actually a slightly different set that have been used to produce pearls. I mentioned China, change from all white into the pink, peaches and violets because the were using a blue clam. They started out using a clam that was very thin shelled and completely white on the inside. We're not talking about the outside but the we are talking about the mother of pearl or maker that's on the inside, that's white in the clam that they started out using. The pearl mussel that they are using now is a pink, purple and orange. Many of these clams or mussels that we are using are not themselves only one color. So this particular Chinese pearl mussel comes in a variety of colors. The same is completely true, almost dramatically true of the black lipped pearl oyster in Tahiti and really, spread throughout a wide variety in the pacific region, into the red sea, Mediterranean region, throughout the Indian Ocean and South Pacific. The black lipped pearl oyster comes in a rainbow of colors, all of them kind of a dusty grey, hardly ever black. So black pearl is really a misnomer, the pearl culturists there call them Tahitian cultured pearls and refuse to call them black pearls, but they come in colors from yellow, pink, green to purple, to wonderful combinations. There is one called eggplant that is a purple, there is one called obergene?, my favorite, I don't want to miss-label it but when you look at it from the surface its pink in the middle and green around the edges, absolutely a stunning combination. They are all a little iridescent, iridescence is easiest to see on a white pearl, because then you can see the whole rainbow that is common in any mother pearl of any type that is iridescent. But these are hues that are built into the color of the pearl. In Australia, the silver lipped pearl oyster, also called the gold lipped pearl oyster, it comes in a variety of colors, from silver, white to yellow and gold. There have been quite a few attempts to produce a different color of pearl, by using the tissue from another clam or oyster. For instance in a silver lipped pearl oyster taking a little piece of tissue from a black lipped pearl oyster. That usually has not worked well, it is the same idea as tissue rejection in a transplant operation, it usually doesn't work too well. There isn't a whole lot of control over the color. Pearl culturists often do selective breeding, for instance the pearl oyster that the Japanese started working with in the 1920's was naturally quite yellow, so the first cultured pearls produced were yellow green in color. They have selectively bred their oysters to become pure white. So they have gotten rid of that yellow color to become whiter and whiter. The Australians try to emphasize the white range of their spectrum. The Indonesians and Filipinos are pushing the gold end of that spectrum. They are all using the same animal but they are emphasizing and concentrating on different ends of that spectrum. The Tahitians want every color available and they have it.