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

To every season

The process of developing a permanent exhibition about the history of chemistry was, at times, a challenging one, but for those involved in the experience it was also a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build a new museum on a topic that few science museums are currently able to focus on. In 2013, CHF prepared for its third leadership transition and the fifth anniversary of the museum by taking some time to reflect. Working with nationally recognised museum planning and evaluation firm Randi Korn and Associates, CHF staff gathered to assess what was working and how to maximize the impact of the museum. All museums have limited resources and the staff at CHF wanted to be sure that we were maximising impact. What was exciting to see at this series of cross-departmental planning sessions was how positive staff felt about the museum and how the museum had become an essential part of the organisation overall. As a result of this exercise, CHF identified the impact/goal of the museum as: ‘CHF’s exhibitions, programs, and artifacts inspire visitors to explore chemistry’s history and value its significance in everyday life.’ The take-away after five years was that, while programs and exhibitions could look at science topics broadly, at its core the focus of the museum should be about chemistry because that is what makes CHF unique and where it can make the most significant impact.

As the CHF museum moves towards its tenth anniversary, the organisation and staff continue to explore ways to further the impact articulated during the impact planning exercise. The temporary exhibition program is particularly robust and is used to engage a variety of audiences. Museum staff are exploring how new media technologies could be used to add content and layers of access to the visitor’s experience. The year 2014 saw a slight decline in attendance, with 9,955 walk-in visitors, 1,127 on tours, and 1,450 attending special events. In response, the museum introduced weekend hours during the spring and summer of 2015 to further increase accessibility. The results were not only increased visitation numbers, but more importantly, an increase in local and regional visitors, 44 per cent of weekend visitors are local as opposed to 37 per cent during the week. This is a target audience for the museum because a more local audience tends to become more engaged with the organisation and participate in more programs. Innovative programming, including hands-on activities with an education collection of historic artefacts, continues to be tried and refined and CHF is becoming increasingly involved with partner institutions throughout the city. Although there were concerns as the museum was being planned of the institution receiving negative feedback or publicity by opening its doors to a broader audience because of negative attitudes about chemistry, the opposite has occurred. By opening and becoming more transparent and welcoming, CHF has found an enthusiastic public eager to learn about the history of science and engage with chemistry-related topics. The growth and maturation will continue but satisfaction is felt knowing that the goal to reach an adult but public audience with a message of how the history of science, and chemistry especially, has impacted the modern world is being enthusiastically received.


My thanks to the Artefacts conference and colleagues that provided valuable feedback and encouragement as the museum at CHF took shape and matured. The curatorial team for developing the museum at CHF was an exceptional group of colleagues who pulled together, faced adversity, and had the commitment to make a great museum – Mary Ellen Bowden, David Brock, Rosie Cook, Marge Gapp, Laura Igoe, Andrew Mangravite, Erin McLeary, Cyrus Mody, Gigi Naglak, Patrick Shea, Amanda Shields, Jody Roberts – it was an honour to work with you. Thank you to Shelley Wilks Geehr for championing the museum through its infant and toddler years. And a special thanks to my husband, Gene, and son, Lucas, for enduring an often-absent wife and mother and cheering me on to the finish line.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/170811/012