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

Getting to the Molecular Level

By early 2006, the idea of a permanent gallery space at CHF was becoming a physical reality. The location for the new museum was to be in the original 1865 portion of CHF’s footprint. Designed by well-known Philadelphia architect John McArthur, Jr, the building originally served as the First National Bank. Demolition of the interior first and second floors began while an architectural firm and an exhibition design firm were chosen to develop the plans for the museum and conference centre.[10] The desire was to create both a space that harkened back to the building’s heyday in the late nineteenth century and also evoke a sense of modern design (see Figure 2). The previously renovated reading room on the third floor served as a guide and starting point for the design. Certain classic nineteenth century architectural elements would be restored, including the two-storey arched windows and the Georgian Revival columns. A sense of the modern era was also desired and steel and glass became favourite design elements for both the architects and the exhibition design firm.

Figure 2

Black and white photograph of a floor of the First National Bank from around 1911

Photograph of First National Bank, now home of CHF’s museum, circa 1911. This image and several others were found amidst the detritus left in the building when CHF purchased it in 1995.

In early 2006, an additional group was formed within CHF that was comprised of CHF’s curatorial and collections management staff and several staff historians. This group, which became known as the curatorial team, was charged with working with the design firm, architects, CHF senior staff, the retired chemists and other experts to develop the storyline, including the content, artefact list, and design.[11] The group would then carry the process through to writing the exhibit text, fabrication, installation, and opening of the new exhibition. The curatorial team would also be the group to fight for the use of the word ‘museum’ and balance the demands of the multiple stakeholders. It was also this group that would educate decision makers about professional museum standards and why exhibition development needed to follow a recognised process.

Moving forward with the content and design development based on the narrative and audience assumptions established in the October 2005 planning report rapidly became a challenge, for the concerns and differing opinions of the various parties involved in the planning quickly revealed themselves. The retired chemists who spearheaded the project in the early phases believed that the museum should be focused on the instrumentation that had played such a crucial role in their own careers and that they had worked so tirelessly to collect. They also were enthusiastic about the idea of a museum that would illuminate for the general public the beauty and excitement of chemistry. The retired chemists were not engaged with an idea of a museum targeted towards an audience much like themselves. The retirees also emphasised the importance of communicating the significance of chemistry and why science (and instrumentation in particular) should matter to a general public. For this group, the rescue of the word ‘chemistry’ from years of bad publicity and negative association was a key role for the exhibition, the museum needed to be, in many ways, a redeemer of the discipline in the public eye. They also felt strongly that technical and scientific information needed to be communicated along with historical facts.

Senior management and fundraising staff had their own strong opinions on what the exhibition spaces should look like and communicate. The conference centre was a major focus of this stakeholder group who saw the potential for an income source as well as a way to encourage CHF’s core constituency of scientists and business professionals in the chemical and molecular sciences to see CHF as a place to discuss contemporary issues. This group liked a ‘hall of fame’ approach and wanted the exhibits to communicate a ‘WOW’ factor. They were also uncomfortable with the idea of ‘permanent’, which implied inflexibility in the exhibition, wanting instead the ability to change exhibition themes to reflect contemporary scientific topics and appeal to potential donors who might visit; this went hand-in-hand with the entrepreneurial spirit of the young organisation. For this group, who were the ultimate decision makers, storyline and narrative took precedence over objects. If CHF had collections to support a storyline, wonderful, but if not, graphics and technology-based substitutes would suffice.

The curatorial team had its own set of assumptions as to how the exhibition should develop. Their preferred targeted audience reflected the team’s professional museum experiences and their ideas were actually similar to the ideas of the retired chemists. The curatorial team argued that the exhibition should capitalise on CHF’s collections since it was the collections that made the organisation unique. The curatorial team believed, like Stephen Weil, that ‘what museums have that is distinctive is objects, and what gives most museums their unique advantage is the awesome power of those objects to trigger an almost infinite diversity of profound experiences among their visitors’ (Weil, 2002). The team also argued that the permanent exhibition should reach a general, scientifically-curious (not just scientifically-literate) public which would be primarily adult but could also reach younger visitors at various entry points. The curators felt that if these audiences were addressed the stakeholders and scientific visitors would also find engaging experiences as well as gratification from experiencing a general public gaining appreciation for their work. The curatorial team did differ from the retired chemists in what the visitor’s take-away should be. The curatorial team believed the exhibition should focus on the history and the social importance of science and technology instead of teaching scientific principles or explaining the technological ‘how’ of the instruments. The team felt that the permanent exhibition at CHF should be about the role of chemistry, and science more broadly, in everyday life. The group was also very aware of the tightrope that needed to be walked in terms of redeeming chemistry from its perceived ‘evil’ association and providing honest, factual, historic assessment and presentation of the artefacts and themes of the exhibition.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/170811/005