Early Science & Alchemy

Interview: Curator Elisabeth Berry Drago

In the exhibition Age of Alchemy, paintings, laboratory tools, and more showcase the quest to transform the human body and the natural world.

By Hope Koseff Corse | May 4, 2018
Portrait of alchemist in his lab

The Alchemist’s Studio, after 1600 – before 1800, by Thomas Gérard.

Science History Institute

In Age of Alchemy, the Science History Institute’s new exhibition opening May 4, paintings, laboratory tools, and more showcase the alchemical quest to transform the human body and the natural world. Reflecting the Institute’s commitment to its collections, Age of Alchemy highlights works from our Eddleman and Fisher collections. This impressive trove of oil paintings by Dutch, Flemish, and English artists from the 17th to the 19th century depicts alchemical activities and early scientific experimentation, medicines, and pharmacies. But as curator Elisabeth Berry Drago explained to Distillations, the exhibition also connects with numerous alchemy-themed projects currently being concocted at the Institute.

Q: How did Age of Alchemy come about? What was the reason you chose to explore this theme?               

A: Age of Alchemy is a natural extension of work that has been going on behind the scenes for the last few years: that is, development of our upcoming digital game Age of Alchemy: The Goldsmith’s Daughter. The Science History Institute has a unique collection of alchemical art, and our museum team has been thinking carefully about how to share it in a meaningful way.

Alchemical art, especially paintings of alchemical laboratories and workshops, is beautiful and fascinating, but not always easy to understand or interpret. What are the alchemists doing in the paintings? Why do their workspaces look so cluttered? What was alchemical work like, who was doing it, and what were they actually making? These are some of the questions the pictures bring up. So as we have been developing our Goldsmith’s Daughter game and finding ways to develop the kind of skill interactions and stories players will experience, we have also been thinking about what an exhibition along the same lines as the game would look like.

The exhibition Age of Alchemy is partly an exercise in myth busting: what was it really like to be part of a world, a time, when alchemy was woven into everyday life? If you’re using alchemy to study and manipulate nature, how does that change how you see the world or your place in it? We’re inviting people to experiment with a different mind-set.

Q: What will visitors to Age of Alchemy be able to see? What should they take away from the experience?

A: Visitors will see a lot of paintings! Our museum holds one of the largest and finest thematic collections of alchemical art in the world. They’ll be immersed in images of laboratories—and these laboratories won’t look like contemporary lab spaces, which are imagined as very sterile and clean. The laboratories and workshops in the paintings are very cluttered and busy, which for a long time made people interpret them as dirty spaces or spaces where the experiments have failed. But sometimes clutter just means process. It’s a sign of a creative mind, an experimental mind, at work. I hope visitors will come away with a sense that alchemical practice is much more compelling—and much more real and practical—than they imagined. Visitors will also see some objects from our collection that highlight the kind of material world that alchemists inhabited.

Q: What are some of the objects in the exhibition? Are they from our collections?

A: Everything in this exhibition is straight from our collections. It emphasizes what a curious range of objects we have—from preserved animal specimens, to apothecary jars, to scales and balances, pieces of the material culture of early pharmacies and laboratories.

Some of the most interesting objects in the exhibition are tools and containers that would have been part of an early modern apothecary’s shop. For example, we have two sets of mortars and pestles, used to grind up and mix ingredients for medicinal compounds, such as herbs, salts, or various other substances. One set looks simple and practical; the other has wonderful decorative flourishes. It’s made of cast bronze and has two eagle’s-head handles that protrude like wings from either side. It reminds us how much our ideas about laboratories and pharmacies have changed: what materials do we believe belong in those spaces? What materials could we imagine there?

Q: Will there be any interactive points? What can visitors touch?

A: Since developing our online game is one of the motivating factors behind this exhibition, we thought it would be fun to add elements of play and puzzles to the show itself. You’ll notice right when you come into the gallery space some very curious symbols, and of course the paintings are visually rich with objects and unfamiliar technologies. So we’ve designed a kind of scavenger hunt through the images and symbols to help visitors use interpretation and clue hunting to connect with the idea of alchemical practice. Learning about alchemy wasn’t always straightforward; there was a lot of trial and error . . . sometimes explosive or smoky or smelly error! You can try out that experience in our gallery in a way that’s less messy and more fun.