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N.Y. exhibit sets gold standard

It has been used to crown kings and fill cavities, for high-end jewelry and high-flying space travel.

Gold has long represented wealth, power and prestige, and a new exhibit showcases just how remarkable this rare and precious material is. "Gold" runs through Aug. 19 at the American Museum of Natural History.

Gold is a unique mineral in a number of ways, said Jim Webster, one of the curators for the show: It's malleable, so it can be stretched into the slimmest of wires or flattened into the thinnest of sheets. It's reflective, which is why it has been used on astronauts' helmets to reduce glare.

It can be worked and handled in its native form, right out of the ground, and doesn't need to be heated or smelted like other minerals such as copper. And it doesn't really tarnish or corrode, so even coins on sunken ships that spend hundreds of years on the ocean floor can be found in perfect condition.

"It's just amazing, the impact it's had," Webster said. "Most cultures that have run across it have incorporated it as a symbol of power, strength and authority."

And, of course, it's got that lovely glow and luster to it, the only mineral that naturally occurs in that yellow color.

That spectacular shine is on full display in the museum's exhibit, which contains about a ton of gold. Divided into sections, the show begins with the geology and mineralogy of gold, showcasing the various forms in which it can be found, such as a 2.2 pound nugget taken from the museum's collection.

The next section looks at its physical properties, like its heavy density. (Those movie scenes, where someone takes off carrying a bag full of gold bars? Um, not likely. The bag would weigh hundreds of pounds.) Visitors will be able to walk through a special room, 12 feet by 12 feet by 8 feet, that's lined with 22.5 karat gold leaf to see a physical demonstration of how thin gold can get. Gilding the entire space required only 3 ounces of the material.

Another section focuses on gold's cultural and artistic importance, and its usage in jewelry everywhere from South Asia to the collection at Cartier, which contributed a breathtaking diamond and gold necklace. Further on, its economic importance takes center stage, with old coins and a mind-boggling loan of 27 gold ingots from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. The Federal Reserve's vault is 80 feet below ground and holds $147-billion worth of gold bullion, the world's largest collection of gold used for monetary purposes.

All this impact, for a mineral that isn't even that common. The exhibit points out that in all of recorded history, just more than 330-million tons of gold have ever been mined. Contrast that with the millions of tons of other minerals that are mined every year.

"All of human history, all the impact it has had, all of that," Webster said, "we make more iron in 11/2 hours."

The museum has programmed lectures and events to accompany the show. It will travel, but a schedule has not been released.