Making Modernity: A Gallery Preview

Arthur Henry Knighton-Hammond (1875-1970), Caustic Pot House Stacks,

Arthur Henry Knighton-Hammond (1875-1970), Caustic Pot House Stacks,

Merging the Past and the Future

The construction of the gallery and its adjoining meeting space renews a connection between CHF’s headquarters and the park, according to architect Peter Saylor. Saylor’s firm has worked on a number of projects that included the renovation of existing historical buildings, such as the expansion of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Designed by John J. McArthur, Jr., the architect of Philadelphia’s City Hall, and erected in 1865 as the First National Bank, the building that will house CHF’s galleries is one of several Italianate banks that once lined Chestnut Street.

“It’s a formidable piece of architecture,” says Saylor, “but over the years it’s had all sorts of elements added in and removed. There’s almost nothing of the original structure left, apart from the windows and facade. This is a contemporary intervention into a classic building for a project where a collection of world-class artifacts is integral to the architecture,” he says. “It gives CHF a cutting-edge way to deliver a history which is one of rapid change.”

The gallery’s 21st-century look relies on a generous use of glass in its walls, stair treads, and even floors to connect the exhibits and integrate the various levels and functions of the space. By adhering to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) principles, the architects have created a sustainable and ecologically sensitive design. 

A similarly organic aesthetic governs the presentation of the exhibits themselves. Appelbaum recommended the use of so-called glow panels along the exhibit’s perimeter that become the floor-to-ceiling finish of the room. Saylor explains, “Instead of having a drywall enclosure with exhibit cases hanging from it, the exhibit cases are our walls.” The exhibit design and the architecture “have been married since very early on in the project,” he says, “and this seamless union has really helped us all realize the best way to get the most drama out of this space.”

Bringing Light to Gray Boxes

The very nature of CHF’s collection presents its own museum-making challenges, says Anderson, who has curated numerous chemistry exhibits. “There are difficulties in displaying our science heritage,” he comments. “First, it is often difficult to understand; second, not all that much survives from beyond the recent past; and third, while recent material can be highly significant, it can be visually dull.” Erin McLeary, a curator at CHF, seconds those thoughts. “A lot of the artifacts in the instrument collection are variations on a gray box.” Throughout the planning process CHF curators insisted that such equipment be presented on its own terms. “We didn’t want the solution to be one that relies on people racing around pounding buttons,” says McLeary. “There’s got to be a happy medium between that and displaying technical charts that detail the lineage of spectrometers.”

Enter Ralph Appelbaum Associates. The firm, whose most notable projects include the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, has a reputation for being unafraid of tackling epic subjects. Appelbaum has become adept at extracting stories from objects, at examining specialized subjects through the artifacts that illuminate them. At the Corning Museum of Glass, for example, Appelbaum turned one of the world’s best assemblages of historical and art glass into a sparkling look at a material that has fascinated humankind for more than 3,000 years. And in Santa Clara, California, Appelbaum outfitted a 10,000-square-foot learning lab and gallery dedicated to the short but rapidly evolving history of the semiconductor for Intel’s headquarters.

Serious Entertainment

The high education level of the typical CHF visitor has allowed Appelbaum to keep the bar high. “The project is very focused,” project director Tim Ventimiglia says, “and we’re excited about the serious level of the scholarship.” Still, the curatorial team at CHF sent Appelbaum back to the drawing board a few times. “One initial concept featured a series of display cases that started at the exterior of the space and gradually moved into the center, with the largest area dedicated to ‘people,’ then merged into a smaller one to examine ‘tools,’ and culminated with the most interior, tightest space for ‘impact,’” says McLeary. “Our historians said, ‘No, that isn’t how science works. It’s not unidirectional, it goes back and forth continually.’” Another design draft for the gallery’s organization used the periodic table as a central motif. “The chemists said, ‘The elements are such a tiny bit of what goes on,’” says McLeary. “They felt that energy —what happens when you mix the elements —was missing, both literally and figuratively. The concept didn’t capture the underlying truth of what makes chemistry so exciting.”