Making Modernity: A Gallery Preview

In Fall 2008 we revealed our carefully designed exhibition of hundreds of objects that together embody the story of the great human adventure of discovery in the chemical and molecular sciences.

By JoAnn Greco | March 23, 2008
Making Modernity exhibition at the Museum at CHF.

Making Modernity exhibition at the Museum at CHF, now the Science History Institute.

Science History Institute

It started a decade ago with several dozen significant objects and a dream. The Chemical Heritage Foundation assembled a collection of hundreds of objects that together would embody the story of the great human adventure of discovery in the chemical and molecular sciences. The fruit of this labor, a remarkable permanent exhibit titled Making Modernity, opens in fall 2008 in a breathtaking modern space at the Chemical Heritage Foundation, in Philadelphia.

Ten years ago a group of chemists approached the Chemical Heritage Foundation with a challenge: to collect as many as possible of the instruments most significant to advancing the field of chemistry. Within a few years the group—now known as CHF’s Instruments and Artifacts Committee—counted nearly 50 important pieces among its holdings. The then president of CHF, Arnold Thackray, was both intrigued and slightly alarmed by their progress. Gerald Gallwas, a member of CHF’s Heritage Council, recalls Thackray telling Thomas Porro, an early committee member, “Take it easy; that’s almost too much already.” But when Porro learned that his employer, Perkin Elmer, was planning to shut down a plant in Germany and thereby deaccession a valuable assemblage of instruments dating back to the 1930s, he couldn’t resist.

Making Modernity Gallery Preview

Making Modernity Gallery Preview

Elevation of a wall of the exhibit showing background images and object layout, as well as the architecture of the space.

Ralph Applebaum Associates

A group from CHF went to Perkin Elmer’s facility in Überlingen, Germany, to scout out the collection. According to David Brock, a historian who traveled with the group, Porro told Thackray that it was “better than he ever imagined.” After much conversation and negotiation with Perkin Elmer, CHF ended up with 133 prime, museum-quality pieces of equipment, packed and shipped to the United States.

This fall CHF unveils the new home of these instruments and many other important collected items in the $20 million, 8,000-square-foot Masao Horiba Exhibit Hall in Philadelphia’s historic First National Bank building, which formerly housed part of CHF’s offices. Besides showcasing the instruments, the hall will finally provide a way for CHF to highlight its unparalleled collection of chemical and alchemical rare books, letters, photographs, objects, and artworks. The new space—which includes the two-level Arnold O. Beckman Permanent Exhibit, the Clifford C. Hach Gallery for temporary exhibits, and the E. I. du Pont Conference Center—represents a collaborative effort by some of the best minds in museum design. Four years in the making, the space features extensive renovation work by Dagit•Saylor Architects and exhibit design by Ralph Appelbaum Associates, the world’s largest interpretive museum design firm. Both firms have worked hand in hand with CHF’s curatorial and exhibit staff in crafting a narrative that will bring the long, complex story of chemistry to life. As CHF board member Robert G. W. Anderson, former director of the British Museum, explains, “It tells an intriguing story of human endeavor and relates scientific pursuit with those practical end products which have transformed our lives.”

The gallery will convey throughout what the team refers to as “the great adventure” of these pursuits. The gallery’s exhibits will enhance the experience of visitors to CHF—an audience that will expand significantly with the opening of the new conference center, which features six state-of-the-art meeting rooms. By increasing CHF’s ability to host groups of anywhere between 25 and 200 people, Thomas R. Tritton, CHF’s current president and CEO as of 1 January, says the new space “fits with the global reach and significance of CHF itself.”

“It is significant that this gallery will be located in the greater context of Independence National Historical Park,” says Tritton, “with its associations of freedom of thought and a time when key political figures like Benjamin Franklin and Benjamin Rush were also scientific leaders.”

Merging the Past and the Future

The construction of the gallery and its adjoining meeting space renews a connection between CHF’s headquarters and the park, according to architect Peter Saylor. Saylor’s firm has worked on a number of projects that included the renovation of existing historical buildings, such as the expansion of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Designed by John J. McArthur, Jr., the architect of Philadelphia’s City Hall, and erected in 1865 as the First National Bank, the building that will house CHF’s galleries is one of several Italianate banks that once lined Chestnut Street.

“It’s a formidable piece of architecture,” says Saylor, “but over the years it’s had all sorts of elements added in and removed. There’s almost nothing of the original structure left, apart from the windows and facade. This is a contemporary intervention into a classic building for a project where a collection of world-class artifacts is integral to the architecture,” he says. “It gives CHF a cutting-edge way to deliver a history which is one of rapid change.”

The gallery’s 21st-century look relies on a generous use of glass in its walls, stair treads, and even floors to connect the exhibits and integrate the various levels and functions of the space. By adhering to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) principles, the architects have created a sustainable and ecologically sensitive design.

A similarly organic aesthetic governs the presentation of the exhibits themselves. Appelbaum recommended the use of so-called glow panels along the exhibit’s perimeter that become the floor-to-ceiling finish of the room. Saylor explains, “Instead of having a drywall enclosure with exhibit cases hanging from it, the exhibit cases are our walls.” The exhibit design and the architecture “have been married since very early on in the project,” he says, “and this seamless union has really helped us all realize the best way to get the most drama out of this space.”

Caustic Pot House Stacks Full Painting

Caustic Pot House Stacks

Arthur Henry Knighton-Hammond (1875–1970), Caustic Pot House Stacks, “A” Power Stack, “A” Pump Station, and “A” Evaporator Building. 1920, oil on canvas.

Henry H. and Grace A. Dow Foundation

Bringing Light to Gray Boxes

The very nature of CHF’s collection presents its own museum-making challenges, says Anderson, who has curated numerous chemistry exhibits. “There are difficulties in displaying our science heritage,” he comments. “First, it is often difficult to understand; second, not all that much survives from beyond the recent past; and third, while recent material can be highly significant, it can be visually dull.” Erin McLeary, a curator at CHF, seconds those thoughts. “A lot of the artifacts in the instrument collection are variations on a gray box.” Throughout the planning process CHF curators insisted that such equipment be presented on its own terms. “We didn’t want the solution to be one that relies on people racing around pounding buttons,” says McLeary. “There’s got to be a happy medium between that and displaying technical charts that detail the lineage of spectrometers.”

Enter Ralph Appelbaum Associates. The firm, whose most notable projects include the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, has a reputation for being unafraid of tackling epic subjects. Appelbaum has become adept at extracting stories from objects, at examining specialized subjects through the artifacts that illuminate them. At the Corning Museum of Glass, for example, Appelbaum turned one of the world’s best assemblages of historical and art glass into a sparkling look at a material that has fascinated humankind for more than 3,000 years. And in Santa Clara, California, Appelbaum outfitted a 10,000-square-foot learning lab and gallery dedicated to the short but rapidly evolving history of the semiconductor for Intel’s headquarters.

Serious Entertainment

The high education level of the typical CHF visitor has allowed Appelbaum to keep the bar high. “The project is very focused,” project director Tim Ventimiglia says, “and we’re excited about the serious level of the scholarship.” Still, the curatorial team at CHF sent Appelbaum back to the drawing board a few times. “One initial concept featured a series of display cases that started at the exterior of the space and gradually moved into the center, with the largest area dedicated to ‘people,’ then merged into a smaller one to examine ‘tools,’ and culminated with the most interior, tightest space for ‘impact,’” says McLeary. “Our historians said, ‘No, that isn’t how science works. It’s not unidirectional, it goes back and forth continually.’” Another design draft for the gallery’s organization used the periodic table as a central motif. “The chemists said, ‘The elements are such a tiny bit of what goes on,’” says McLeary. “They felt that energy —what happens when you mix the elements —was missing, both literally and figuratively. The concept didn’t capture the underlying truth of what makes chemistry so exciting.”

Exhibits are broken down into 24 sections, each with its own story, to illustrate eight thematic arcs that range from alchemy and the roots of chemistry to the role chemistry has come to play in the modern world. All told, the cases bring to life a compelling mix of early dyes and Bakelite rings, thermometers and Bunsen burners, fuel cells and Beckman pH meters, toy chemistry sets and Geiger counters.

Issak Cruikshank - The Friends of the People

Issak Cruikshank (1756–1811), The Friends of the People. 1792, Hand-colored etching. Featured in Making Modernity.

Science History Institute

Such “things,” however, are merely tools with which to explore the narrative thread of the history of chemistry. Every story is based on a person or group of people, with each story’s case backed by a glowing 12’ × 12’ glass wall that incorporates a large photograph. A system of stainless steel rods attached to the glass provides display space for several dozen artifacts. Each case will highlight objects and documents that, taken together, convey the story of a given innovation or idea. The “Chemistry and the Public Good” case, for example, focuses on chemists who assumed the role of public advocates in the 19th and 20th centuries, creating change on the local, national, and global levels. It includes an 1865 letter from Louis Pasteur attacking French winemakers for not adopting pasteurization and Charles Chandler’s “Notebook on Seven Food Colors,” as well as photographs, journals, and popular magazines of the era.

As this case illustrates, some of the earliest things on display are not instruments at all. “The galleries will allow us to showcase some of our favorite treasures from the collection —like a portrait of the 17th-century chemist Robert Boyle —in a much more contextualized fashion,” says Mary Ellen Bowden, senior research fellow at CHF. “For example, near the painting we’ll display some early bound journals of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, of which Boyle was a founder.”

The arrangement used for the cases will build the stories off of each other to help visitors recognize the connections between different scientific insights and eras. A wall devoted to synthetics, for example, moves from a vitrine that explores synthetic dyes (created to simulate those found in nature) to one that contrasts celluloid, an artificial compound made in part from natural matter (cellulose), with the completely artificial material Bakelite. “With Bakelite, developed in 1907, we see a transition from imitation of nature to an interest in making an entirely new, more useful and adaptable material,” Bowden says.

The first Bakelite was brown and drab but perfect for its original use in things like plugs and switchboard bases. When German chemists figured out how to dye the material, however, a world of possibilities was revealed. “All of a sudden everything came together,” says Bowden: “the lessons learned from the creation of synthetic dyes and the applications of Bakelite. Life became more colorful, more diverse.” A vibrant display of Bakelite jewelry, accessories, and small appliances proves her point. The story moves on to contemporary synthetics like nylon, whose discovery in 1938 revolutionized the textile industry. The story is brought up to date by a section on Goretex, a membrane with remarkable qualities that allow it to be used with equal success as a material in outdoor clothing and replacement body parts.

Some cases, such as the quartet in the “Becoming A Chemist” section, trace ideas rather than processes. “With this wall we want to show how chemistry evolved from an extremely elite enterprise to one that’s much more open,” says Bowden. The tightly knit, closed universe of Boyle’s time, with its lavishly illustrated books, gradually unfolds to the “inquiry-based” chemistry teachings of today, where 12-year-olds can be encouraged to contemplate the molecular structure of, say, an aspirin tablet. In between, the exhibit displays lecture and student notes through the ages, teaching tools such as a 19th-century air pump, and historical textbooks like Jane Marcet’s Conversations in Chemistry (intended for women and children) from the early 1800s.



Vintage packets of Kool-Aid drink mix. Featured in Making Modernity.

Science History Institute

Looking Toward the Future

The “permanent” cases are actually designed to allow a degree of flexibility, since chemistry is an ever-changing field. “The structures we have provided,” Ventimiglia says, “can be reassembled in the future to tell new aspects of a story or to demonstrate evolving principles.” But since CHF has thriving relationships with the Smithsonian and other loaning institutions, room has also been set aside for temporary exhibits to ensure that when visitors return to the building they’ll always find something fresh. The first temporary exhibit, Molecules That Matter, was developed in partnership with the Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College and offers scientific and artistic representations of 10 organic molecules that transformed the 20th century. Future scheduled exhibits promise examinations of the chemistry of plants, the history of microscopes, and a selection of rare books. “We’re hopeful that these slightly edgier exhibits will offer spins on what the history of chemistry can be,” says McLeary, “and that together, both galleries will also function as a recruitment tool for future donations and loans. Visitors will come to think of us as the appropriate stewards for artifacts that they themselves own.”

In its ambition for the galleries and their impact, CHF has aimed high. Ultimately, Ventimiglia says, “it will become an icon in the world of science museums.” Although the exhibits have been designed for an audience with some familiarity with science, CHF’s designers and curatorial staff say they won’t be surprised should the delights within make themselves known to a larger, more general audience. “Really, these galleries will appeal to all those who are curious about the world and want to know the part which chemical sciences have played, do play, and indeed, will play in their lives,” says Anderson. “Benjamin Franklin would have thoroughly approved of this project being undertaken next door to him. In fact, I’m sure he’d be one of the first visitors when the exhibit opened.”