Rocks, minerals and speculative fabulations

During our work with the secondary school, we spent time at a number of local museums. One being the Lapworth Museum of Geology, located on the main campus at the University of Birmingham. Recently renovated, it has a number of displays, including a large dinosaur skeleton and cabinets full of hundreds of rock and mineral specimens.

The sessions at the museum incorporated a period of free time, whereby the students could look around and interact with the exhibits as they wished, as well as more structured activities (led by colleagues from the Birmingham Energy Institute) which aimed to explore the many different versions of energy.

We focus here on some of the students’ experiences of the museum during their free time. We draw attention to what drew their attention. In particular, we want to highlight how this museum – dedicated to the science of geology – led students to make connections and generate (sometimes stuttering) stories, games, and ‘fictions’.

The first floor of the museum (which contains many of the cabinets displaying rock and mineral specimens) attracted a considerable amount of attention, with the students spending at least half an hour going from cabinet to cabinet pointing out their favourite gemstones and minerals. In some ways this was surprising to us given that the rocks are displayed very simply, a label with the rocks’ name and no other contextual information. They were particularly engaged in a game of trying to spot the diamonds in the case; they were disappointed to find that they were in fact smaller than they had anticipated. A couple joked about how much force and what tools they would need to pull the cabinet apart in order to extract the diamond. This led onto a conversation about the value of diamonds, how diamonds were made and the amount of pressure required. We mentioned that there were companies who were offering to take the cremated remains of loved ones and could turn them into diamonds. They seemed positively repulsed by this idea!

Parallels were also drawn between the popular video game Fortnite and the minerals found at the Lapworth. Within the online game, weapons could be crafted through sourcing specific materials, a number of them being different types of quartz minerals. This led to moments of intense excitement whereby a mineral was identified, pictures were taken and its worth in Fortnite currency was identified.

The fossils display in the Lapworth also drew some interest as well as confusion from the students. Is it a dead animal? No, it’s the imprint of an animal. Oh… But if it’s underground, wouldn’t the shell get crushed? How did it stay in that shape?

Another student, James (all names anonymised) told us how his whole house is made of gold with a gold sofa, gold TV and a gold bed; he also explained how he has a lot of jewellery upstairs in his house. Sam also explained how his Nan gave him a diamond necklace to wear just before she passed away. One display in particular showed cut and polished gemstones; the students took it in turns to pick out the gems that they would steal if they had the chance, with James attempting to pick the lock of the display cabinet with a rolled up KitKat wrapper!

Our experiences have prompted two sets of reflections. First, we were taken by the fictions and games generated by the boys. We can well imagine that some readers might be dismayed to see them making connections between the rocks and the (at the time) popular game Fortnite, which has become embroiled in controversy in the UK for its possible role in promoting violence amongst children, and especially children playing the game who are younger than the age recommendation for the game. How, then, might we work with these games and stories, and with their entanglement with/in popular cultures? To what extent are these generative small stories (Taylor, 2019) or speculative fabulations (Haraway, 2011) that challenge the grand narratives of the Anthropocene and imagine other ways of living life? To what extent could or should they be? How could we make more of these encounters without either exaggerating or colonising their for-the-moment mattering to the students?

Second, we want to acknowledge the modes in which the boys interacted with rocks. As Gallagher (2019) writes, in a striking exposition of the geology of media, there is simply more to do when it comes to articulating how children and young people are engaged with media (beyond, specifically, questions of mis/use, identity and popular cultures). In his case, Gallagher explores children’s role in mining the cobalt and other minerals that go into our digital devices. We wonder whether the interactions of the students with rocks in the Lapworth Museum are different again; whether, as Bryant (2014) has it, the rocks became ‘media’, not in a Heideggerian sense of their ‘given-ness’ (as tools, for human use), but as, Bryant has it, as components of a media ‘machine’. In this machinic ontology, the rocks constitute and are constitutive of, mediate and are mediated by, a brief assemblage of students, fictions, games and popular media (Fortnite). This is neither an example of a long-term, visceral engagement with rocks (since most [but not all] were in display cases, the boys could not touch or be touched by many of the rocks, as in Gallagher’s example of young miners), but nor is it simply an example of their engagements with a computer game. The two were, momentarily, stitched together in short-lived (as far as we know) utterances of speculative fabulation, which may, or may not, challenge us to think in different ways about our co-implication with the geological record. Indeed, what would it mean to draw games like Fortnite – and the multi-million dollar industries that propagate them – into attempts to tell stories about our engagements with the earth, with young people?

By Peter Kraftl and Arooj Khan


Bryant, L.R., 2014. Onto-cartography. Edinburgh University Press.

Gallagher, M., 2019. Childhood and the geology of media. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, pp.1-19.

Haraway, D., 2011. Speculative fabulations for technoculture’s generations: Taking care of unexpected country. Australian Humanities Review, 50(5), pp.1-18.

Taylor, A., 2019 (online early). Countering the conceits of the Anthropos: scaling down and researching with minor players. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, pp.1-19.