Making Modernity: A Gallery Preview

Issak Cruikshank (1756-1811), The Friends of the People. 1792, Hand-colored etching. Featured in Making Modernity. Image courtesy of CHF Collections.

Issak Cruikshank (1756-1811), The Friends of the People. 1792, Hand-colored etching. Featured in Making Modernity. Image courtesy of CHF Collections.

Exhibits are broken down into 24 sections, each with its own story, to illustrate eight thematic arcs that range from alchemy and the roots of chemistry to the role chemistry has come to play in the modern world. All told, the cases bring to life a compelling mix of early dyes and Bakelite rings, thermometers and Bunsen burners, fuel cells and Beckman pH meters, toy chemistry sets and Geiger counters.

Such “things,” however, are merely tools with which to explore the narrative thread of the history of chemistry. Every story is based on a person or group of people, with each story’s case backed by a glowing 12’ × 12’ glass wall that incorporates a large photograph. A system of stainless steel rods attached to the glass provides display space for several dozen artifacts. Each case will highlight objects and documents that, taken together, convey the story of a given innovation or idea. The “Chemistry and the Public Good” case, for example, focuses on chemists who assumed the role of public advocates in the 19th and 20th centuries, creating change on the local, national, and global levels. It includes an 1865 letter from Louis Pasteur attacking French winemakers for not adopting pasteurization and Charles Chandler’s “Notebook on Seven Food Colors,” as well as photographs, journals, and popular magazines of the era.

As this case illustrates, some of the earliest things on display are not instruments at all. “The galleries will allow us to showcase some of our favorite treasures from the collection —like a portrait of the 17th-century chemist Robert Boyle —in a much more contextualized fashion,” says Mary Ellen Bowden, senior research fellow at CHF. “For example, near the painting we’ll display some early bound journals of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, of which Boyle was a founder.”

The arrangement used for the cases will build the stories off of each other to help visitors recognize the connections between different scientific insights and eras. A wall devoted to synthetics, for example, moves from a vitrine that explores synthetic dyes (created to simulate those found in nature) to one that contrasts celluloid, an artificial compound made in part from natural matter (cellulose), with the completely artificial material Bakelite. “With Bakelite, developed in 1907, we see a transition from imitation of nature to an interest in making an entirely new, more useful and adaptable material,” Bowden says.

The first Bakelite was brown and drab but perfect for its original use in things like plugs and switchboard bases. When German chemists figured out how to dye the material, however, a world of possibilities was revealed. “All of a sudden everything came together,” says Bowden: “the lessons learned from the creation of synthetic dyes and the applications of Bakelite. Life became more colorful, more diverse.” A vibrant display of Bakelite jewelry, accessories, and small appliances proves her point. The story moves on to contemporary synthetics like nylon, whose discovery in 1938 revolutionized the textile industry. The story is brought up to date by a section on Goretex, a membrane with remarkable qualities that allow it to be used with equal success as a material in outdoor clothing and replacement body parts.

Some cases, such as the quartet in the “Becoming A Chemist” section, trace ideas rather than processes. “With this wall we want to show how chemistry evolved from an extremely elite enterprise to one that’s much more open,” says Bowden. The tightly knit, closed universe of Boyle’s time, with its lavishly illustrated books, gradually unfolds to the “inquiry-based” chemistry teachings of today, where 12-year-olds can be encouraged to contemplate the molecular structure of, say, an aspirin tablet. In between, the exhibit displays lecture and student notes through the ages, teaching tools such as a 19th-century air pump, and historical textbooks like Jane Marcet’s Conversations in Chemistry (intended for women and children) from the early 1800s.