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The Art of Science

Chemical Heritage Foundation takes a new approach to science museums

by Celia Henry Arnaud
October 27, 2008 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 86, Issue 43

Credit: Rich Dunoff
The media column towers above the "Making Modernity" exhibit.
Credit: Rich Dunoff
The media column towers above the "Making Modernity" exhibit.

THE NEW MUSEUM and conference center at the Chemical Heritage Foundation (CHF) in Philadelphia is not your typical science museum. Call it an art gallery for science.

To emphasize the new museum's gallery role, CHF scheduled the opening for First Friday—a monthly open house for galleries in Philadelphia's Old City art district. Approximately 500 visitors attended the opening, according to Miriam Fisher Schaefer, CHF's vice president for finance and administration. "The response from visitors was immensely satisfying," she says. And people have continued to visit since the opening. "We have been pleasantly surprised by the number of visitors, all of whom have nothing but complimentary things to say," she reports.

The museum is part of a $20 million renovation of a Civil War-era bank building. Previous visitors who remember the rabbit warren of offices that the galleries have replaced will appreciate the floor-to-ceiling windows that bathe the room with natural light. The large open space on the first floor is surrounded by a glass-floored mezzanine. The project is the culmination of an idea conceived 10 years ago by Arnold Thackray, chancellor and founding president of CHF.

The museum consists of two galleries—the Masao Horiba Exhibit Hall, housing the permanent exhibit, "Making Modernity," and the Clifford C. Hach Gallery, hosting a succession of temporary exhibits. During the American Chemical Society national meeting in August, CHF gave attendees a sneak peek at the museum. At that point, the space for "Making Modernity" was little more than a shell waiting to be filled, but "Molecules That Matter," an exhibit created by the Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum & Art Gallery at Skidmore College, in New York, in collaboration with CHF, was already open for visitors.

"Making Modernity" emphasizes the role chemistry and especially chemists have played and continue to play in creating modern society. To tell that story, the museum shows visitors a variety of enabling technologies, laboratory instruments, and consumer products.

"We realized early on that we could not tell the history of chemistry. It was too big a topic, and it sounds a little boring when you put it that way," Lead Curator Erin McLeary says. "We looked for stories that brought the chemical and molecular sciences alive. We wanted to make it a broad story of human achievement—not just the brand-name chemists but all the sorts of people whose work goes into making science and then translating science into various things for the public."

McLeary sees the museum's audience as people who are interested in learning about science in a social and historical context. "We're not teaching scientific principles, nor do we always say precisely how an instrument works," she notes. "Those are things we think science centers do quite well." This museum, she cautions, is not for "a group that wants to run around and push buttons."

The gallery-like exhibit showcases CHF's collection of historical instruments and rare books and prints. "Our collections are unique, and we think they have a lot of aesthetic, emotional, and intellectual power," McLeary says. "Even things like chemical instrumentation—when contextualized, that gray box can come alive and start to tell some pretty exciting stories."

EVOKING THOSE stories, however, takes innovation. "It's a real challenge for a curator and a designer to take some of these things that are not considered museum pieces and put them into a museum setting," McLeary says. "We tried to pick things that would look good and would make someone want to come over and see what it does, why it was used, and what discoveries were made with it."

The many instruments throughout the gallery include such prizewinners as an electrospray mass spectrometer used by John B. Fenn and a protein synthesizer created by Bruce Merrifield. Both scientists won Nobel Prizes for their inventions.

And the instruments are only a fraction of the objects on display. The exhibit also includes books, documents, and artwork from CHF's collection, as well as an array of consumer products. A section called "Materials for the Masses" even includes nylon panties and a nylon cocktail dress. "We decided early on to use a broad range of materials," McLeary says.

Combing through CHF's collections wasn't a quick process. At first, "we didn't even know what we had in our collections," Schaefer says. "We didn't have any cataloging system. We didn't have pictures or images. We didn't have data on the objects. We were starting from scratch. For a year and a half, we just found out what we had and stored it, cataloged it, and photographed it."

Visitors entering the exhibit naturally gravitate toward the 19-foot media tower that dominates the gallery and serves as the visual centerpiece of the room. On one side of the tower, a 14-minute video that showcases the chemical elements loops continuously. The other side features an interactive touch screen that visitors can use to pull up videos about the elements, the artifacts on display throughout the gallery, and prominent scientists.

Credit: Rich Dunoff
Students from the Brook J. Lenhart Campus of Mastery Charter School, in Philadelphia, check out "Making Modernity."
Credit: Rich Dunoff
Students from the Brook J. Lenhart Campus of Mastery Charter School, in Philadelphia, check out "Making Modernity."

Theodore W. Gray, who is one of the founders of Mathematica software maker Wolfram Research, developed the periodic table video in collaboration with British filmmaker Max Whitby. Gray describes the surrounding exhibit as a "chance to present science and chemistry as something to be contemplated as beautiful in its own right. These objects that people use to make great discoveries are intrinsically interesting objects. If you put them in this beautiful space and give them the same kind of treatment you would give a sculpture, you can appreciate them that way."

The periodic table video does the same thing for the chemical elements. The film shows each element in its pure form, "not an artistic interpretation of them," Gray says. This is a rarity, even for many chemists. Gray cites calcium as a prime example. "How many times have you seen pure calcium metal? You think calcium, you think the white cliffs of Dover. But it's not a chalky substance. It's a soft silvery metal," he says. "This is hammering home the elements in their own right as physical objects. This is a lump of something you can drop on your foot."

McLeary is currently working on gallery guides to help visitors get the most out of their visit. One of the guides takes visitors on the "I hated chemistry in school" tour, poking fun at the hatred and fear that many people express about chemistry while at the same time leading them through the gallery.

MOST OF THE OBJECTS are out in the open; only the rare books are behind glass. "Chemistry is a subject that not everyone has fond memories of. Sometimes there's a little suspicion or hostility," McLeary says. "We wanted to remove all barriers between the visitor and the objects. Not having the glass there makes everything much more immediate and more intimate." In the case of the instruments, McLeary thought that some scientific visitors who have used the instruments would "find it strange and off-putting to see these old friends behind glass."

Visitors may notice a difference in focus between the upstairs and downstairs portions of the gallery. The downstairs is focused more on consumer and everyday objects that all visitors will recognize. Upstairs is geared a little more toward insiders, homing in on the process of becoming a chemist. Here, visitors are more likely to encounter books, letters, and lab notebooks. (This is also where chemistry-set enthusiasts will find the objects of their interest.)

Thackray notes that this dichotomy was intentional. The exhibit organizers realized that many people attending conferences at the adjoining upstairs conference center might not have time to visit the first floor and that casual visitors might not make it past the first floor.

Schaefer expects that most of the museum's visitors will be people attending events at the conference center. "The conference center is our way to attract audiences," she says. "We hope to have 10,000 visitors per year to the conference center once we're up and running."

To give visitors a reason to return, the Clifford C. Hach Gallery will feature regularly changing traveling exhibits. The gallery's current tenant is "Molecules That Matter." In spring 2009, the gallery will host a video installation about plant movement called sLowlife, developed by the Chicago Botanic Garden. The next planned exhibit will feature artistic prints of the elements by 118 different printmakers. After that, CHF may display one of its own older exhibits. "We want to refresh the changing exhibits every six months," Schaefer says.


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