Making Modernity: A Gallery Preview

Gallery plan

Elevation of a wall of the exhibit showing background images and object layout, as well as the architecture of the space. Image courtesy of Ralph Applebaum Associates.

It started a decade ago with several dozen significant objects and a dream. The Chemical Heritage Foundation assembled a collection of hundreds of objects that together would embody the story of the great human adventure of discovery in the chemical and molecular sciences. The fruit of this labor, a remarkable permanent exhibit titled Making Modernity, opens in fall 2008 in a breathtaking modern space at the Chemical Heritage Foundation, in Philadelphia.

Ten years ago a group of chemists approached the Chemical Heritage Foundation with a challenge: to collect as many as possible of the instruments most significant to advancing the field of chemistry. Within a few years the group—now known as CHF’s Instruments and Artifacts Committee—counted nearly 50 important pieces among its holdings. The then president of CHF, Arnold Thackray, was both intrigued and slightly alarmed by their progress. Gerald Gallwas, a member of CHF’s Heritage Council, recalls Thackray telling Thomas Porro, an early committee member, “Take it easy; that’s almost too much already.” But when Porro learned that his employer, Perkin Elmer, was planning to shut down a plant in Germany and thereby deaccession a valuable assemblage of instruments dating back to the 1930s, he couldn’t resist.

A group from CHF went to Perkin Elmer’s facility in Überlingen, Germany, to scout out the collection. According to David Brock, a historian who traveled with the group, Porro told Thackray that it was “better than he ever imagined.” After much conversation and negotiation with Perkin Elmer, CHF ended up with 133 prime, museum-quality pieces of equipment, packed and shipped to the United States.

This fall CHF unveils the new home of these instruments and many other important collected items in the $20 million, 8,000-square-foot Masao Horiba Exhibit Hall in Philadelphia’s historic First National Bank building, which formerly housed part of CHF’s offices. Besides showcasing the instruments, the hall will finally provide a way for CHF to highlight its unparalleled collection of chemical and alchemical rare books, letters, photographs, objects, and artworks. The new space—which includes the two-level Arnold O. Beckman Permanent Exhibit, the Clifford C. Hach Gallery for temporary exhibits, and the E. I. du Pont Conference Center—represents a collaborative effort by some of the best minds in museum design. Four years in the making, the space features extensive renovation work by Dagit•Saylor Architects and exhibit design by Ralph Appelbaum Associates, the world’s largest interpretive museum design firm. Both firms have worked hand in hand with CHF’s curatorial and exhibit staff in crafting a narrative that will bring the long, complex story of chemistry to life. As CHF board member Robert G. W. Anderson, former director of the British Museum, explains, “It tells an intriguing story of human endeavor and relates scientific pursuit with those practical end products which have transformed our lives.”

The gallery will convey throughout what the team refers to as “the great adventure” of these pursuits. The gallery’s exhibits will enhance the experience of visitors to CHF—an audience that will expand significantly with the opening of the new conference center, which features six state-of-the-art meeting rooms. By increasing CHF’s ability to host groups of anywhere between 25 and 200 people, Thomas R. Tritton, CHF’s current president and CEO as of 1 January, says the new space “fits with the global reach and significance of CHF itself.”

“It is significant that this gallery will be located in the greater context of Independence National Historical Park,” says Tritton, “with its associations of freedom of thought and a time when key political figures like Benjamin Franklin and Benjamin Rush were also scientific leaders.”