Putting a fresh take on a 40-year-old museum — that’s what the museums studies seminar was tasked with when curating the anniversary exhibition of the Lora Robins Gallery.

They combed through about 100,000 rocks, shells, fossils, and decorative artifacts, searching for a common thread. Eventually, they landed on the transformation of natural materials into decorative and functional objects.

“In the collection, we do have a lot of natural science specimens,” says executive director Richard Waller, who taught the course. “[The students asked], ‘What can be made of them? How can they be transformed?’ It’s a very interesting way to look at the collection.”

With so many possible objects in the collection, finding a cohesive selection proved challenging. Mitchell Merling, Paul Mellon Curator and head of the Department of European Art at the Virginia Museum for Fine Arts, offered guidance. He spoke to students about crafting a narrative — in this case, exploring the cultural, religious, and scientific contexts of natural materials.

Take jade, for example. Labels explained the stone’s significance in Chinese culture, while samples of the raw material showed what might be harvested in different areas of the world. Sculptures offered a chance to explore cultural symbols, like the Chinese jade deer that represents immortality and longevity.

“The students knew why they were interested in particular materials, and what becomes of the materials in the process of being transformed,” Waller says. “That helped the students decide which objects would help visitors see these changes, too.”