Chemistry as Catalyst in The Wall Street Journal

This periodic table that cascades down a video column is the one high-tech touch in 'Making Modernity.'

November 5, 2008 - New York, NY

By Julia M. Klein

There are no buttons to push, no giant human organs to stroll through, virtually none of the high-tech wizardry that characterizes the typical science center. The Chemical Heritage Foundation's new history of science museum, in Philadelphia's historic Old City neighborhood, makes its points the old-fashioned way: with readable text and impeccably displayed objects and images.

"Making Modernity," the permanent exhibition unveiled in early October, is a sophisticated celebration of both chemistry and the continuing quest for scientific mastery. It touches on the social context of science and the social costs, raising questions about how chemical knowledge has been discovered, disseminated and applied.

Like the rest of the museum, which includes a trove of genre paintings about alchemy, "Making Modernity" links art and science, the aesthetic and the technological. Here an arcing array of light bulbs and vacuum tubes is a thing of beauty, and the periodic table cascades down a video column (the one high-tech touch) in a dazzling formal display.

For this $20 million expansion of the Chemical Heritage Foundation's headquarters at 315 Chestnut St., which also features a new conference center, SaylorGregg Architects has elegantly renovated the former First National Bank Building. The original Italianate design, from 1865, was by the Scottish architect John McArthur Jr., whose masterpiece was Philadelphia's monumental City Hall.

The location is resonant as well. The foundation's former president, Arnold Thackray, notes that the physician Benjamin Rush, the country's first chemistry professor, lived a block away. Traces of the residence of Benjamin Franklin, Rush's friend, are visible from the foundation's inevitable Franklin Room. "This was the high-tech corridor of the 1770s," Mr. Thackray says. "What those guys didn't know wasn't known."

The museum's main exhibition area is a soaring, two-story space that combines glass walls and floors with restored Doric columns and amber-colored "glow walls" that serve as exhibit backdrops. "Making Modernity" occupies the hall and the balcony overlooking it. A smaller adjacent gallery, for temporary exhibitions, now houses "Molecules That Matter," a look at 10 organic molecules.

A hallway exhibition, "The Whole of Nature and the Mirror of Art," comprises photo-reproductions of alchemical images donated to the foundation by the Roy G. Neville Historical Chemical Library. Upstairs, in "Transmutations: Alchemy in Art," the foundation displays examples of its stellar collection of mostly 17th-century alchemical paintings, including David Teniers the Younger's "Alchemist in His Workshop." One of the half-hidden treasures of Philadelphia, the exhibition is open to the public by appointment.

"Making Modernity" is a joint effort of Ralph Appelbaum Associates, which also worked on Philadelphia's National Constitution Center, and the foundation's own curatorial team. They have settled on a thematic rather than chronological display that gestures without self-consciousness to the past. "A lot of the design in the space was inspired by the Victorian era, the era when science was professionalized," says Tim Ventimiglia, project director for Appelbaum Associates.

The subjects covered include becoming a chemist, chemists and the wider world, new tools and technologies, making materials for the masses, and the perils of progress. Individual exhibits juxtapose artworks, documents and rare books with scientific instruments and items from grocery and department-store shelves. We see Roman glass, Jane Marcet's popular 1806 chemistry primer, cards depicting the history of hot-air ballooning, a portrait of 17th-century chemist Robert Boyle, a child's chemistry set, computer chips, an electron microscope, vials of pills, a blue nylon frock and a red Bakelite transistor radio. All but the most fragile items are unprotected by glass, a bold move that Mr. Appelbaum says "welcomes visitors into the lab, to see things as scientists last saw them."

Of course, a modern chemistry lab is not necessarily the most enrapturing venue, and "Making Modernity" contains its share of arcane gray boxes with wires and knobs that only a chemist could love. Fortunately, the designers and curators have not forgotten that men -- and sometimes women -- are at the heart of the scientific endeavor.

Stars like Joseph Priestley, credited with the discovery of oxygen, and Wallace H. Carothers, the developer of nylon ("as strong as steel, as fine as a spider's web," according to DuPont Co.), get top billing, but the exhibition also stresses the social nature of the scientific enterprise. It shows the scientific family tree that blossomed into Silicon Valley, extols the collegial atmosphere of the Bell Labs, and describes Dow Chemical Co., in its early days, as a typical entrepreneurial venture with a risk-taking founder and skittish investors...

The Chemical Heritage Foundation could have immersed visitors in esoterica. Instead, its ambitious opening exhibitions achieve a signal feat: They shift and enrich our view of the world.

Link to TWSJ

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