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

Keeping the black box closed

The display of the Model E in the museum also serves as an example of the second guiding principle that CHF followed for the development of content and design: the museum would have a strong narrative (storytelling) focus that emphasised human stories and social context with interesting historical, science, or technology facts added as appropriate. Technical descriptions of how the instrument worked or details about great scientific breakthroughs were not included. With the Model E, we knew visitors would be drawn to it because of its large size, and while we provide some interesting facts about revolutions per minute, the overall tone is conversational, as is most of the text in the museum:

Early high-speed centrifuges gave researchers a powerful new analytic tool, allowing them to physically separate samples by density. Yet this power had a price: these custom-built machines had to be operated behind heavy wood or concrete barriers because their rapidly spinning rotors could explode.

These challenges were overcome in the Model E, the first successful commercial ultracentrifuge. Its finely balanced rotor could spin as high as 60,000 revolutions per minute, subjecting samples to gravitational forces up to 289,000 g (by contrast, a roller coaster can briefly hit 5 g). And it could be operated for days at a time: in one of Matthew Meselson and Frank Stahl’s famous experiments on DNA, they ran a Model E continuously for an epic seven days.

We strove to make the exhibition text and interpretation accessible with quotes from oral histories and primary sources as well as anecdotes that might catch visitors’ interest. However, it is important to note that our decision to highlight the social over the scientific or technological should not be perceived as succumbing to the dreaded ‘dumbing down’ that the adult visitor often finds in science centres today. The curatorial team felt that CHF had an enormous opportunity by not having to write our label text for a middle-school or younger age group. The labels and captions explore complex ideas and create layered, visually rich displays of objects, art, books, archival materials, and material culture throughout the gallery that challenge the visitor to think about chemistry’s past and its impact on the modern world in new ways.

In some instances we chose to establish a mood or personal connection. For example, we discussed how scientists feel about the tools they use every day rather than specific informative content such as a chronology of how analytic instrumentation developed. We privileged historical and social context over discussions of function, technology or how something actually works. The curatorial team felt strongly about giving visitors a sense of the social environment of science and the laboratory and the fact that it is not just the lead scientist making the advances. In the exhibition section ‘The Soul of an Instrument’, the introductory text reveals a part of this social context: ‘Used day after day, tinkered with, fought with, present for a lab worker’s greatest triumphs and most dire failures, laboratory instruments can take on a life of their own.’

Non-scientific artefacts help provide connections to everyday material culture without being a derivative of, for instance, the widely seen advertising campaigns of the 2000s by the American Chemistry Council that focus on dramatic, lifesaving innovations such as the plastic in neonatal incubators. In a case devoted to the development of synthetic dyes and the science of colour that includes two colorimeters and parts to a GE Hardy Recording Spectrophotometer, we also include items of beauty and consumer use such as a Germantown Navajo Rug that used synthetically-dyed yarn and a 1941 Putnam dye booklet that promotes at-home dying. This approach also gave an opportunity to challenge visitors’ assumptions and perceptions of chemistry. By placing chemistry themes in social context, the exhibition surprises many by pointing out the multitude of places that chemistry appears in daily life – both positive and negative.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/170811/008