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

The genuine artefact

It is perhaps useful to delve into some specific exhibition narratives and design development examples to demonstrate how the two key principles guided the creation of Making Modernity. As previously mentioned, the two guiding principles were to structure the narratives around the artefacts and to emphasise the social context over the scientific or technical information.

The museum would include only fabricated exhibition components when absolutely necessary and would not include large graphic panels that are widely found in contemporary science centres. This decision had a significant impact on the development of content. Because the narratives needed to be tied to artefacts, there were important subjects that we simply could not include because the objects were not available. For instance, CHF as an institution strives to be international and not just focused on the United States. As the curatorial team sorted and refined the theme and narrative lists we kept returning to the subject of non-western science and the deep roots chemistry has in Eastern and Middle Eastern cultures. Everyone involved in the planning agreed that this was a critical narrative; however, CHF came fairly late to the collecting world and lacks significant collections of antiquities, especially non-western. In the end, despite its importance, the narrative was cut because it could not be an artefact-based story. The absence is acknowledged and a brief glimpse into the deep past of chemistry as a world-wide endeavour is provided in a special introductory case designed to display older and more fragile materials and through a program on the interactive screen in the centre of the gallery.     

Just like the acknowledgment of the deep past of chemistry, CHF also did not completely ignore the importance of the discovery of the structure of DNA and the resulting developments in biochemistry. We took the knowledge that we were not highlighting a key story in the history of twentieth-century science and looked for ways to tie the bigger story into a narrative that we could tell in an engaging way with the artefacts in the collection. So in the end we did tell a molecular story with tie-ins to DNA. In the exhibition section titled ‘Under the Skin’ the introductory text reads, in part:

What goes on beneath the skin? What hidden processes cause disease? What is the best way to intervene? Medical thinkers have long grappled with these questions, looking to the visible products of the diseased body… In these investigations blood has held a special place. It is both the carrier of the life force and a complex fluid transporting specific molecules throughout the body.

The story is anchored by two very different artefacts – a selection of lancets and a bleeding bowl tell an early story of the understanding of humours while a Spinco Model E ultracentrifuge serves as the key artefact in the story of studying proteins and genetics to better understand disease (see Figure 6). Knowing that there are only a few remaining Model Es in existence, and given the essential role the instrument played in studying large biological molecules, the curatorial team felt that it was an important object to showcase and it allowed a nod to the ‘discovery of DNA story’ without actually telling it.

Figure 6

Colour photograph of an ultracentrifuge on display in the Chemical Heritage Foundation

Spinco Model E ultracentrifuge on display in Making Modernity.

This decision to use only real objects to drive our stories was not an easy one to accept for the CHF management, the retired chemists, the historians who worked with us on content, or the designers. It is understandable: the decision to not tell the story of the discovery of the structure of DNA, a story CHF likes to argue is a chemistry story, was hard to come to terms with. The fact that the narratives would be predominately about the western world, particularly the United States, was also difficult. But this decision reflects CHF’s collecting strengths and the desire to tell only those narratives that could be based on a rich and engaging selection of artefacts. The fact that there are no artefacts in CHF’s collections that could adequately tell the DNA discovery story or the importance of early Arabic science was what drove the decision not to devote text and display space to those stories that were much better told in museums that had the genuine article. 

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/170811/007