Inquirer Reviews Museum 

June 10, 2012 - Philadelphia, PA

by Jacqueline Bershad


I've lived in Philadelphia for almost 20 years and occasionally revisit the Liberty Bell or Independence Hall with out-of-town guests. I’ve seen the striking new museums on Independence Mall—the National Constitution Center and the National Museum of American Jewish History.

With a day off in the middle of the week, I decided to visit three of the more than 20 museums tucked throughout Philly’s historic district. At the Shoe Museum, I was treated to a personal tour by the curator. In “Making Modernity” at the Chemical Heritage Foundation, chemistry is transformed into a dazzling display with cutting-edge exhibition design. And “Money in Motion” at the Federal Reserve Bank engages with high-tech computer interactivity and billions of dollars.

All are fascinating and free to visit. . . .

While the exhibit at the Fed is high-tech, the “Making Modernity” exhibit at the Chemical Heritage Foundation (CHF) has more in common with Philadelphia’s wonderful Victorian Mütter Museum or the Wagner Free Institute of Science. Located in Old City, next to Franklin Court, it is like getting inside the mind of a scientist, full of objects and images waiting to be explored.

Founded in Philadelphia in 1982, CHF works to preserve the history of chemistry and promote its understanding among the general public. As a result, it has taken on the difficult task of appealing simultaneously to retired Ph.D.s and high school sophomores.

“When we asked scientists what first drew them to chemistry, they focused on the bright lights, colors, peculiar smells, and explosions. It was an aesthetic experience,” said Tim Ventimiglia, project director for Ralph Appelbaum Associates (RAA), who designed the exhibits. RAA has designed exhibits ranging from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington to “John Lennon: The NYC Years.”

Here they translated the scientist’s world view into a dazzling museum space. With local firm SaylorGregg Architects, RAA stripped down a banking hall from the 1860s and inserted a shimmering structure of glass and steel, managing to evoke a high-tech lab and a lavish Victorian exhibit hall at the same time.

The foundation made the unusual decision to display most of the collection in the open so all the knobs, buttons, and beakers are in easy reach. According to Kathryn Tusler, the visitor services assistant, “The retired scientists are the ones we have to watch the most closely and warn them not to touch.”

One of my favorite items, a book titled Charitable and Easy Chemistry for Women, from 1666, was under glass. Having everything else out in the open makes objects that would otherwise seem foreign—such as the electrospray ionization mass spectrometer used by John Fenn’s team to win the Nobel Prize in 2002—feel much more accessible.

As a nonscientist, it took me awhile to appreciate how the objects are thematically rather than chronologically grouped. And without familiar science superstars such as Ben Franklin to guide the way, you have to be willing to lead your own investigations.

In the display “New Currents,” wet-cell batteries, a crank telephone, tourmaline and lithium, an electroplated tea service, and an aluminum necklace cascade across a wall. Surprisingly, it reminded me of both a 19th-century butterfly collection and an afternoon on the Internet, surfing and making connections from one image to the next.

For those in need of computer graphics, there is a soaring video column in the center of the room. The staff call it Dmitri, in honor of Dmitri Mendeleev, developer of the modern periodic table. It displays the work of Theodore Gray, who transforms the dull letters of the periodic table into dramatic images of elements exploding, vaporizing, and freezing.

Like the “Making Modernity” exhibit, it turns something dry and abstract into a grand spectacle. . . .

Link to Philadelphia Inquirer

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