The Art of Science

The media column towers above the

October 27, 2008 - Washington, DC

From Chemical & Engineering News, October 27, 2008, vol. 86, no. 43, pp. 34–36

by Celia Henry Arnaud

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.”. . .

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