Chemistry Revived at the Science Museum

Bright-red PVC strips frame the exhibition areas of Plasticity. Image courtesy of Science Museum, London.

Bright-red PVC strips frame the exhibition areas of Plasticity. Image courtesy of Science Museum, London.

The name of London's Science Museum constitutes a bit of a misnomer. Its collection has always been dominated by technology, which, coupled with a family-oriented "exploratorium" style of exposition, has marginalized the explanation of pure science and its history. The museum's most dominant galleries explore space, flight, and computing, while its most successful areas include Launch Pad, a hands-on area for children, and Making the Modern World, an impressive hall that explores the development of modern technology since the Industrial Revolution. Chemistry has fared particularly badly, especially in recent years. With the removal of the museum's Industrial Chemistry gallery in 2004, the subject was left with only a minor gallery, Chemistry in Everyday Life, a display so modest that it no longer appears on the museum's own visitor map. The museum's new temporary exhibition, Plasticity: 100 Years of Making Plastics, running through January 2009, thus represents a welcome opportunity to expand its presentation of chemistry.

Timed to mark the 100th anniversary of Leo Baekeland's 1907 discovery and commercial development of Bakelite, the first fully synthetic plastic, the gallery has been designed to exploit the versatility of its subject matter inventively. Visitors are enclosed and directed around the exhibition not by walls, but by thousands of bright red strips of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) suspended from the ceiling, some of which are printed with narrative information to accompany the exhibits. Within this forest of plastic six exhibition areas have been cleared, organized chronologically to take the visitor through the past, present, and future of plastics.

The gallery begins with a room dedicated to Baekeland's discovery and includes an impressive quantity of historical information relating to Baekeland's work, his early marketing success, and the wider status of plastics research and production at the time. Baekeland was by no means the only chemist working on combining phenol and formaldehyde, and the exhibition does well to recognize this, particularly the remarkable fact that the U.S.-based, Belgian-born Baekeland beat his British competitor James Swinburne to the patent on his phenolic resin technique by a single day. In the gallery's second room is an impressive collection of Bakelite artifacts, ranging from a coffin (the largest phenolic molding ever made) to a rich collection of household and industrial products. The collection highlights the importance of design in popularizing Bakelite items in the home, as well as the significant utility of Bakelite to the electrical industry and the military.

The gallery's third and largest room seeks to answer the question of "what happened next" through discussion of the development and use of eight of the most common plastics during the 20th century. By concentrating on the key physical characteristics of these different plastics (e.g., acrylic's transparency or nylon's strength when spun into fibers) the exhibition successfully conveys both the growing versatility of plastics and how these various characteristics have driven their use. Although there is a tendency to concentrate on how plastic's differing properties influenced design and material production, the history of industrial process is not entirely forgotten. Perhaps the most engaging display in the whole gallery contains the original equipment from Imperial Chemical Industries' high pressure research lab, which Eric Fawcett and Reginald Gibson used in their discovery of polyethylene in 1933. Also commendable is the museum's effort to teach children the chemistry behind plastics production through an ambitious interactive computer game, "team plastics." The game explains the role of monomers in defining a plastic's properties, as well as how they are combined to produce polymers.

The gallery's next section, "Plastics Now," reflects the Science Museum's role as a public institution in Britain. Plasticity forms part of a three-year government-funded project for the Science Museum called Wasted Opportunity?, designed to highlight issues surrounding waste management, such as recycling, sustainable levels of plastics consumption, and future sources (e.g., plants) for plastic's raw materials. This theme runs through the "Plastics Now" section of the gallery and also carries over into the final section, "Plastic Futures," which is split broadly into two sections. The first further considers the future of plastics and the environment, showing, for example, Toyota's i-unit concept car, produced entirely using plant-based plastics. The second section, of greater appeal to those with a particular interest in chemistry, contains displays on current pioneering work in the field of plastics science, including the production of plastic solar cells and the development of plastic blood by Lance Twyman and his team at the University of Sheffield. It is refreshing to see contemporary academic science getting such an exposition and hopefully acting as an inspiration to younger visitors.

Plasticity's overall success relies on a dual achievement. Like other recent galleries installed in the Science Museum it draws on the institution's traditional strengths, displaying numerous pieces of technology in a family-oriented environment. What is impressive here is that the history and material culture of plastics science is also successfully represented, ensuring that the gallery should appeal to anyone with an interest in the history of chemistry.

Joshua Nall is a historian at the Whipple Museum of the History of Science at the University of Cambridge, England.