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

Emphasizing the history, de-emphasizing the science

As the planning moved into schematic design in the summer of 2006, the definitions of audience and scope articulated by the CHF curatorial staff began to prevail. Exhibitions are often about compromise and the building of the CHF museum was no exception – the curatorial team was often the mediator between the stakeholders (including senior management and the retired chemists) and the designers. The exhibition that would take shape over the next two years would be focused around real objects, have a strong narrative focus that was storytelling in style, emphasise the social history of the artefacts, and tell human-themed stories as opposed to the technical ‘how’ and ‘why’. The curatorial team felt this approach was the best method to reach a broader audience of the scientifically-curious. The audience target remained adult – text was written for educated readers but interesting stories and cultural artefacts were included to appeal to a high school (age 14 and older) audience as well. The team also moved beyond ‘chemistry’ in the reach and themes of the storylines. While our collections were of objects primarily chemical in nature, the curators began to think in bigger ‘history of science’ terms wherever possible. This was not in avoidance of the ‘c’ word but in recognition of the historically interdisciplinary relationships of the sciences and even more recently, the blurring of disciplines into new fields such as biochemistry, quantum chemistry, and genetics. The museum’s primary objective is to encourage visitors to want to learn more about how science, especially chemistry, intersects with and matters to their everyday lives. The organisation also chose to not specifically call out the nuances of pure chemistry, industrial chemistry and technology in the larger themes of the exhibition. Instead, these distinct topics, that appear far more blurred to the general public than the practitioner or historian, are intertwined and connected throughout the exhibition’s storylines. Industrial R&D, academic discipline, and pure and applied science are all present but the exhibits do not dwell on the tensions or differences that exist historically in these different realms of chemistry.

Once an audience definition was established and a path was set for a narrative-based exhibition that centred on the artefacts, it was time to start the detailed planning of what would be the visual and interpretive identity of the permanent exhibition. This was particularly challenging because there was only a shell of a space in which to visualise what the museum would finally look like (see Figure 3). Trying to set up mock-up cases or work within the gallery was not an option since the space would be a construction zone until about four months before the opening date. In addition, all the casework was designed to be organic with the architecture so the option of working with cases off-site was not possible. All of the design and layout had to be done via computer-aided design (CAD) in meetings with the design team. This method created additional challenges because considerable time had to be spent measuring, weighing, and describing artefacts so that each artefact could be accurately rendered digitally – there was little forgiveness in the design that would allow last minute on-site tweaking so everything had to be accurate as it was being laid out in the CAD drawings.

Figure 3

Colour photograph of the interior of the interior of the Chemical Heritage Foundation during construction

Photograph taken in construction space in April 2006 from the future second floor balcony looking southwest. As an active construction zone until summer 2008, the curatorial team and designers could not actively work in the space.

There were also differing opinions on what narratives should be told in the museum and how they should be presented. From the nine themes presented in the October 2005 planning report, the curatorial team and design team tried to identify key objects that could serve as exhibition anchors which the narratives could be structured around. Every curator and historian had his or her own ideas of what were the essential narratives and objects. At one point, there was a working list of over fifty narratives that were then grouped, prioritised, and aligned with listings of CHF collections or potential loans that could best be used to shape the story.

The designers had their own ideas as to how the exhibition should be structured. RAA is a firm that designs exhibitions that are heavily intertwined with the architecture and they worked closely with the architects throughout the project. The desire to connect with the architecture eventually led to the physical layout of the gallery – the placement of the arched windows dictated where the wall cases would be situated, and the need to pinpoint specific floor locations to install load-bearing capabilities to handle the larger instruments determined where the freestanding cases would be.

RAA is also a design firm that likes to be heavily involved in the actual content development and finding ways for the exhibition space to metaphorically communicate a message related to the museum’s content. Early in the planning, the idea was proposed by RAA that there be three concentric layers of content based on a motif of ‘People – Tools – Impacts’.

Figure 4

A computer generated design proposal for the Chemical Heritage Foundation including an interactive media table in the centre of the room

Early design proposal by Ralph Appelbaum and Associates that includes an interactive 'media table' at the centre of the room. In this rendering, a load-bearing column in the centre of the room is removed. Eventually the load-bearing column became the support structure for the video column that features the periodic table.

RAA’s idea was that ‘moving from the Gallery’s perimeter to its core, visitors encounter compelling stories of people (individuals and groups), tools and processes, and the impacts of the chemical and molecular sciences on our everyday lives’ (Ralph Appelbaum and Associates, 2006). The curatorial team countered RAA on this, however, arguing that science is far from linear and in reality could be quite chaotic and that the content could not be split so decisively between the three areas – science was about give and take and was rarely unidirectional. RAA went back to the drawing board and the process continued through multiple iterations. Another design proposal based the gallery on the periodic table with the table literally set in the middle of the room as a banquet would be. While a central part of what visitors associate with chemistry, the retired chemists pointed out, quite correctly, that the periodic table itself was only a small part of what defines the field. The periodic table would take a prominent position in the permanent exhibition as the one multimedia component – a column of eighteen high-definition screens play a continual display of the elements – but the periodic table would not become the guiding thematic element.

In designing a museum and permanent exhibit there are milestones and review processes that need to occur. The process for the building of the museum at CHF typically went as follows: 1) the curatorial team and historians would develop several thematic ideas and a list of must-have objects; 2) the team would meet with the designers; 3) the designers would return with some design and content organisation ideas; 4) the curatorial team would provide feedback and bring management on-board; 5) an all-day milestone meeting with stakeholders, including CHF’s president, would be held; 6) the designers would be sent back to the drawing board; 7) repeat.

This push, pull, and re-evaluate cycle continued through 2007; it caused project delays and frustration among many team members and the design firm. Then, in late 2007, a presidential transition occurred at CHF and the curatorial team was allowed to move forward with the designers largely unimpeded. This unforeseen shift fundamentally changed how the exhibition developed and moved on to final text and design.

The permanent exhibition that opened in October 2008 has 24 ‘exhibits’ with nine thematic arcs that are communicated to the visitor through several layers of narrative and artefacts.

Figure 5

Colour photograph of a view of the Chemical Heritage Foundation including a video column showing the periodic table

View of Making Modernity looking north towards temporary exhibit gallery.

The exhibition includes many different kinds of artefacts from the collections: instruments, glassware, material culture artefacts, fine art, rare books, manuscripts and photographs are all featured in the exhibition. The decision not to follow a chronology or single storyline for the entire exhibition evolved for two reasons. First, as previously mentioned, the arched two-storey windows determined where the casework would go along the walls. The west wall of the museum includes four of the arched windows. To create symmetry with the west wall, the east wall design included four sets of double glass doors that created multiple points of entry for visitors, thus making a starting point and way-finding for the exhibition problematic. Second, there was a desire to communicate to the visitor that chemistry is a human endeavour that is not linear or neat (‘Eureka!’ moments rarely happen) but is usually messy and surprising. After the opening, other advantages were discovered to telling more succinct narratives – the shorter sections seem to hold visitors’ attention longer, visitors spend between 45 minutes and two hours in a 6,000-square-foot exhibition, far longer than was anticipated. Visitors also appreciated the ability to pick and choose what they wanted to focus on – if they only had a half-hour to visit they did not feel as though they had to quickly see everything but could graze topics of interest and come back another time to see other sections. 

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/170811/006