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

Coming into its own

When the museum opened on 3 October 2008, CHF was not sure what to expect; the organisation had planned for developing the museum but had not necessarily planned for what came after it opened. When the project began the measurable outcomes for what success would be – such as visitation numbers – had not been set. While the curatorial team felt optimistic that the general public would find the museum interesting, no one was sure if visitors would come on their own initiative, despite the fact that admission is free. However, opening night, which was on First Friday in Old City Philadelphia – a monthly occurrence where local galleries, museums and shops stay open late to accommodate the after-work crowd – saw the museum greet over 450 visitors. The event had received press coverage and CHF had marketed to local media outlets but the real surprise was the following week when, with opening hours of ten to four o’clock, the museum saw 104 visitors. From October to December of 2008, the museum greeted 1,591 walk-in visitors – far more than anyone at CHF had anticipated. The Museum at CHF had come to life and was generating interest and attendance.

Figure 8

Colour photograph of an actor giving a performance for visitors in the Chemical Heritage Foundation

First Friday in the museum, The Nearanight Lectures, December 2010. Actor and playwright Brett Keyser performs a Faraday-style performance as Professor Nearanight for a group of visitors.

October 2008 was not necessarily the best time to open a new conference centre and museum. Looking back at the 2005 exhibition planning report, one of the assumptions listed was that the core planning team would go out of existence in 2008 and this did come to pass. However, no budgeting or planning had been recommended for personnel and educational programming once the museum opened. CHF had built a museum and now curatorial staff that remained had to implement systems and policies to actually operate it. Budget cuts made conducting evaluations and assessments unattainable. However, informal visitor surveys and a guest book for visitors provided valuable feedback during the first several years of operation. The graduate museum studies program at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia has an annual course on museum evaluation and student project-based evaluations of visitors also helped inform CHF about the museum’s impact.

As a result of early feedback about the limited hours of operation, CHF made First Friday its first official ongoing museum program. On the first Friday of the month, CHF stays open until eight o’clock and provides a special program for the evening. The programs range from informal lectures and demonstrations about the current temporary exhibition to beer sampling sessions to a chemistry-themed radio play. Relatively low-cost, the program has been very successful with attendance averaging 150 visitors during the course of an evening, and with many Fridays surpassing the 200 mark. CHF received a small grant for the 2010 First Friday program which included funding for an evaluation of the program. The evaluation revealed that CHF’s goals were being achieved, as the evaluator summarised: ‘Visitors often stumbled upon the programs but were delighted by their interdisciplinary nature, the interactive formats, and CHF’s ability to make science accessible to the non-scientist.’[13]

There was almost an expectation by the curatorial team for there to be negative comments because of the poor public perception of chemistry and the high level of sensitivity our core constituents had to that negativity. Surprisingly, very few negative comments in terms of the subject itself were received. The first temporary exhibition that CHF hosted/co-developed was called Molecules that Matter, a blended contemporary art/history exhibition which looked at ten molecules discovered in the twentieth century that fundamentally changed our world.[14] DDT was one of the featured molecules and the museum heard from a select number of older chemists about how wrong it was for DDT to be vilified (the negative consequences were discussed in the exhibition, but objectively and not in a way that lay blame on anyone specifically). Overwhelmingly, visitors greeted the subject with enthusiasm and a level of surprise at how the permanent exhibition was interdisciplinary in approach and revealed why the history of chemistry was relevant.

Two consistent negative remarks received during the first year were that the lobby was somewhat intimidating upon entry (it had a rather a ‘corporate-headquarters’ design), and that the artefact labels, which are on the reader rails, were difficult to match with the artefacts they were describing. As a result of this feedback, the lobby was redesigned to include comfortable seating and the reflective film on the glass front doors was removed to make the building more approachable. CHF also added outdoor signage about the museum to help encourage visitors to come in – a simple sandwich board sign on the sidewalk makes a huge difference in the number of visitors. The artefact numbering system received a redesign and now includes a diagram of each case on the reader rail that is number-keyed to the appropriate artefact label.

In 2009, CHF greeted 5,097 walk-in visitors, 623 guests on prearranged tours and 3,033 attendees at events (including First Fridays). The highest attendance year to date was 2012, with a total of 22,406 visitors, including 7,379 walk-in visitors and 1,157 on tours. First Fridays and other events tend to be a predominately local audience while those visiting during regular open hours are often from other parts of the United States or international. A 2009 evaluation of 89 visitors revealed that 37 per cent were from a part of the United States outside of the East Coast and 17 per cent were international visitors (Bachrach, Duguid and Hammell, 2009). The comments left by visitors are overwhelmingly positive and indicate that the approach for the museum was a good decision. Comments from the guest book include:

Great display! – Paul, England
I never dreamed that among the historical treasures of Philadelphia I would find this rare jewel. I am simply awed by the beauty of the displays; material so enchantingly presented it has quickened my pulse. – visitor, Iowa

This is by far the coolest thing I’ve seen in Philly. – KB

Enjoyed exhibits immensely – as an artist, designer and a ‘science geek.’ Beautiful displays full of accessible and fascinating information. – MaryRose, Philadelphia

What a great place – I love the way the exhibits make complicated science intelligible and accessible for those of us who only took one high school chemistry course many years ago! I’m also delighted by the way rare books and art are integrated into all of the exhibits. – Anonymous

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/170811/011