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

Political Semantics

Any museum professional that tells you that they developed a major exhibition and did not encounter either internal or external politics is either in denial or existing in a vacuum; the development of the museum at CHF was no exception. As alluded to in the discussion of the development of the Exhibit Planning Report, there were politics and definite motivations for developing a permanent exhibition at CHF beyond meeting community needs. All sides proceeded into the planning process with the often-negative public opinion of chemistry and the chemical industry in mind and an awareness that CHF wanted to improve public perception of chemistry without compromising its ‘honest broker’ status. CHF had long fought assumptions from many of its established audience and the general public that the organisation was in ‘the back pocket of industry’. In reality, the organisation’s primary funding sources are private and foundation gifts, not corporations or chemistry organisations.[6] Making sure that the message of CHF as an unbiased producer of historical content was conveyed was an important role and all engaged in the project agreed the permanent exhibition should advance this message.

The planning team was also well aware of the scientific community’s reaction to the Smithsonian’s exhibition Science in American Life a decade earlier as well as the public backlash surrounding the Enola Gay exhibition. Developed at the National Museum of American History in collaboration with, and funded by, the American Chemical Society (the national organisation for chemists that co-founded CHF), Science in American Life was developed as a history exhibition that explored the relationship between science and society. The ACS hoped that ‘the exhibit will be fun, will give visitors an appreciation of the role of science in our society and in our lives, and will demonstrate the need for an informed and scientifically literate public’ (Science in American Life Exhibit Opens’, 1994). The scientific community’s (especially physicists) negative reaction to the exhibition and the ensuing fall-out and defence of the curators’ decisions has been well documented (Molella and Stephens, 1996; Hogan, 1996).[7]

The CHF planning team and curatorial staff was cognisant of the reaction to what appeared to be a well-balanced exhibition and how a few vocal opponents could make for ugly public relations. As Art Molella writes: ‘The implications of the controversy over Science in American Life…go far beyond that particular display. The confrontation illustrates the challenges modern national museums face in presenting science and technology to the public. Among those challenges are changing public perceptions of science, scientists’ feelings about those perceptions, and, above all, the symbolic importance science has assumed in the construction of national identity’ (Molella, 1999). The awareness of other exhibitions receiving such negative backlash[8] ran deep enough to make it into the Exhibit Planning Document as a measurable under ‘Other Dimensions of Success: Not fall into Enola Gay exhibit syndrome with no point of view or murky message’ (Matthew, 2005).

These concerns and other political factors led to a perplexing challenge that becomes apparent in the Exhibit Planning Report from 2005 – an aversion had developed to the word ‘museum’. By October 2005, CHF’s museum of instrumentation had quietly evolved to be a conference centre with exhibits. The word ‘museum’ was not used in the Exhibit Planning Report nor CHF’s strategic plan. This, admittedly, left curatorial staff a little confused as to what the purpose and goals of the exhibition would be. In hindsight, defining the new conference centre and exhibit galleries as a museum implied that CHF would be opening its doors to the general public and taking on new programming areas. It was a bit daunting to the organisation to realise that it was developing a project that would fundamentally change the fabric and function of the entire organisation. While the vocabulary would not seem controversial to an institution that started as a museum, for CHF, a public museum had not been a part of the original plan. Exhibitions could still be kept insular; a museum implied an opening of the doors and welcoming of the visitors who walked by CHF on their way to see Independence Hall. Museums had evolved as Weil writes from being ‘oriented primarily inward on the growth, care, study, and display of its collection’ to being ‘an outwardly oriented organization, engaged primarily in providing a range of educational and other services to its visitors [and] its community’ (Weil, 2002). CHF was, understandably, a bit unsure of undertaking such a transformation. After much discussion and a market analysis by an outside firm, it was finally decided to define the new space as a museum and conference centre – this was a key step in the maturation of the project and essential to ensuring that audiences would easily understand what the organisation was about.[9]

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/170811/004