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

The good, the bad and the unmentionable

As one could easily conclude from this review of the development of Making Modernity, the general approach to the history of chemistry in CHF’s museum is a positive one. Part of what makes the organisation unique is the ability to present an objective but affirmative view of chemistry’s impact on society. Public opinion about chemistry in the United States tends to be negative (often with just cause) but part of CHF’s mission is to present the advances that chemistry has offered. The backlash from the scientific community to Science in American Life was also present in the minds of the curatorial team. However, in the museum, objectivity was crucial and it was felt that it was vital to include sections on the negative impact that advances in science can sometimes have. There are several places where we raise the question of unintended consequences and how chemists are looking for solutions to problems that humans have brought about. For example, a case titled ‘One in a Trillion’ looks at environmental issues such as pollution and climate change but instead of dwelling on the problem, the case looks at how instrumentation has enabled chemists to detect smaller and smaller amounts of contaminants and how knowledge of contamination and its impact has helped spur action and solutions.

Many of the negative mentions of chemistry’s impact are notably subtle, they are mere first-forays into controversial topics that can be further discussed in tours (and perhaps more robustly addressed in future iterations of the permanent exhibition); however, the curatorial team also felt that it was important to use some of the museum’s real estate to address the issue head-on. This occurs in the section titled ‘Chemists and the Wider World’, a series of six exhibit cases that present ‘snapshots in time’ and use a piece of fine art to anchor each case. The fifth case in the series focuses on a painting that was commissioned by Dow Chemical Company in the 1920s that features caustic pot house smokestacks.

Figure 7

Oil painting of an industrial waterside scene showing smoking pot stacks

Caustic Pot House Stacks, “A” Power Stack, “A” Pump Station, and “A” Evaporator Building, 1920 by Arthur Henry Knighton-Hammond

Titled ‘Progress and Its Problems’, the case’s introductory text explains to the visitor why our immediate reaction to a painting of smokestacks is not necessarily what the viewer in 1920 would have thought.

For many, the factory’s billowing smokestack was a powerful symbol of progress, a testament to humanity’s power to harness nature to its own aims. But some observers, chemists among them, realized that there was a price to be paid for rapid industrialization and urbanization. They pointed to a darker side of scientific progress, in which unchecked progress led to unanticipated and unwanted consequences.

As with much of the museum, the overall design of this case helps to evoke the message. To the left of the painting are ascending and highly positive symbols of scientific progress from the early twentieth century such as scientific-achievement medals, a promotional book about Bakelite, and A Cressy Morrison’s Man in a Chemical World. On the right side of the painting, the highest point of the case, is Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which is used as a symbol of the turning point of chemistry in the public eye. The artefacts from this point physically descend and include items such as a lead pipe removed from a home in Philadelphia, Kool-Aid packets which contained Red Dye Number 2, and an old can of Crisco. The ‘people’ rail in this section further emphasises the sometimes double-edged nature of progress by featuring Fritz Haber who is referenced as chemistry’s ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’.[12]

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/170811/010