Go back to article: Museums theme – Beyond the Black Box: reflections on building a history of chemistry museum

A museum of instrumentation

The Chemical Heritage Foundation began as a private non-profit centre for studying the history of chemistry on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania in 1982. Led by Arnold Thackray from its earliest days, CHF’s leadership had a strong entrepreneurial spirit and by the early 1990s was beginning to grow exponentially in both its activities and its collections. From a centre for historical study it quickly added a special collections and research library, oral history program, and archives. Searching through the institutional archives, the first reference to a plan to develop a CHF museum occurs in 1995 when it was initially conceived of as an instrumentation museum. The museum would be focused on the great analytical instruments that have so dramatically shaped science and the laboratory since 1930 and celebrate the entrepreneurial spirit of the individuals that pioneered the ‘second chemical revolution’ (Ferraro and Brame, 2002).

This early idea was given momentum by a group of retired chemists who were early instrument developers and employees of instrument companies. Their desire to build a museum devoted to instrumentation spurred a boom in the collecting of twentieth-century analytical instruments. It was opportune timing, for few other institutions were interested in collecting modern chemical history and the collection grew rapidly to include nearly six hundred analytical instruments. However, this intensive collecting was not overly systematic or focused, which meant that the collection included many highlights but not a cohesive or overarching theme or story. These early collecting decisions and the rapid growth of the collections would have a significant impact on the later planning of the museum.[2]

As a teaser exhibition, CHF opened Revolutionary Tools in 2002. This display featured instruments from the collections along with several loans and looked chronologically at the ‘electronic revolution’ that occurred in the laboratory post-1930. It took place in a small temporary gallery and had an instrumentation-industry focus with a specific emphasis on Beckman instruments. The exhibition was considered a prototype for the future permanent exhibition; it told a fairly traditional story of breakthrough instruments that made significant impacts on the way the laboratory functioned with some references as to why these developments matter to society as a whole. Unfortunately, CHF was not yet in a position to advertise and market the exhibition so there were few visitors and no formal evaluation process to gather feedback. The visitors that did see the exhibition were primarily CHF’s core constituents (scientists and business executives) and they did respond quite positively.

With Revolutionary Tools as its guidepost, the planning committee developed a proposal to raise supporting funds for the new museum. A 2003 funding proposal describes the core exhibition as the retired chemists that were driving the project initially envisioned it:

At the very heart of the new Museum, both architecturally and programmatically, is the…core exhibition, Molecular Visions... Using interpretive displays of instrumentation in immersive environments as its backbone, Molecular Visions presents the historical sweep of chemical endeavor and its transformative impacts on society… Using innovative interactive devices, evocative settings, and original artifacts, Molecular Visions will inform and inspire the Museum’s audiences (Molecular Visions: The Instrumentation Gallery of the Chemical Heritage Foundation’s New Museum’, 2003).

As can be seen in early architectural renderings, the preliminary design emphasised interactive modules and fabricated exhibitions (see Figure 1). In fact, in the early renderings, open storage sections are one of the few areas where one sees historical artefacts or instruments on display. In addition to the fundamental design questions, the project team had yet to create a clear articulation of the intended audience for the exhibition. Whether a history of chemistry museum or an instrumentation museum, a museum of artefacts or a centre with interactives, a public outreach arm of CHF or a place for scientists and industry professionals to gather and celebrate their heritage, the organisation still needed to resolve the fundamental questions about how it would present the topic and what audience(s) the museum would be trying to reach.

Figure 1

Preliminary design drawing in coloured ink of the first floor of the Chemical Heritage Museum

Early rendering of the first floor of the museum shows that preliminary design ideas included open spaces with multiple interactives and limited object displays.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/170811/002