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

Project MING

In October 2005, a project-planning consultant, a group of senior staff, historians, and curators at CHF ‘hyper-spaced’ the project from the conceptual to the development phase by conducting a master planning exercise that aimed to develop objectives and goals for CHF’s galleries and conference centre.[3] This meeting resulted in a planning report titled ‘Master Initiative for New Galleries’ and its acronym, MING, became the lasting code word for the project (it referenced the classic Flash Gordon film’s villain, Ming the Merciless). The report was to be a guidepost for the planning of the permanent exhibition, detailing the project scope and how success would be defined. The report articulated the essential ideas and themes that the planning team believed should be a part of the permanent exhibition. The vision provided for the museum and conference centre was expansive: ‘An accessible, thoughtful, and enlightening experience that provides an authoritative and comprehensive view on the historical impact of chemical enterprise on human endeavor and the continuous journey of discovery and innovation. It also offers a window into the diverse and deep resources of CHF and a venue to network and celebrating [sic] achievements and milestones.’ (Matthew, 2005)

While the vision statement was broad, the report also provided a detailed list of project assumptions. While these assumptions appear concrete, in reality they reveal that some fundamental philosophical questions remained unresolved. A look at a selection of the seventeen assumptions listed in the plan is useful for understanding the exhibit development process:

1.    Exhibits will be based where appropriate on CHF collections.
2.    Themes and messages will be selected first and then collections resources and methods will be determined.
3.    There is a direct relationship between innovative display of collections and ability to attract new resources and collections.
4.    Strive to meet exhibit best-practices for ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act), preventative conservation, and security guidelines within budget.
5.    Exhibits must be factually correct, aesthetically pleasing, and have WOW factor.
6.    Core team goes out of existence in 2008 after successful opening and will provide documentation for the organization.
7.    Primary audience is those who work in the chemical and molecular sciences field (broadly defined) who come to CHF for other purposes such as attending events or to receive awards (e.g., industry leaders and science professionals); secondary audience is curators and educators; third level is educated adults and high school and college classes. Some level of science literacy is always assumed.
8.    Exhibits and conference space will be integrated thematically and spatially.
9.    Project will create new ways of interpreting collections and telling stories that reflects CHF’s unique identity.[4]

When reviewing the assumptions it is clear that the primary audience was to remain CHF’s already established core constituency of individuals directly involved in scientific fields, with a scientific-literate public falling a distant third. Despite the articulation of the assumptions, many stakeholders were still unhappy with the defined audience and approach to content for the exhibition. Contemporary professional museum standards stress community needs and impact as the primary drivers in any exhibition planning process.[5] The audience definition was one that would repeatedly cause stumbling points in the planning process – this was largely because time and resources were not taken to assess and collect information from the audiences, whether core constituent or broader public. As Dean writes: ‘An understanding of community needs and expectations comes from audience assessment. A serious and common mistake is basing decisions about exhibition programs on internal assumptions about community needs, rather than on information gathered from the community itself’ (Dean, 1998). This tension between professional museum standards and internal assumptions would be a significant point of contention during the course of planning the museum.

The assumptions also make it clear that themes and narratives were to drive the exhibition content. Because of the rapid and hurried collecting that occurred in the previous decade, the stories were being developed before the curators had fully assessed the collections to identify key artefacts. The 2005 planning document includes three themes and nine stories that were developed in one exhibition planning session. A listing of iconic objects accompanies the stories but very few CHF artefacts are represented. The selected narratives, not the collections at CHF, would drive the exhibition envisioned in the planning report.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/170811/003