Field Trip to The Chemical Heritage Foundation

Each time I teach Collecting Nature & Displaying Authority we take three field trips to local museums. Our first outing took us to the ‎Chemical Heritage Foundation. Megan, one of the Visitor Services Assistants, led us around on an informative tour and engaging tour of the permanent exhibition, Making Modernity.

A portrait of Robert Boyle—a chemistry hero if there ever was one.
A portrait of Robert Boyle—a chemistry hero if there ever was one.

The students were pensive and measured but asked really interesting questions about curators, visitors, tours, objects, displays, design, architecture, public engagement, policy, scholars and fellows, funding, etc.

Students take notes at one of the displays in the CHF.
Students take notes at one of the displays in the CHF.

Before we went to the CHF, students compiled a list of questions or issues that they wanted to think about when they visited:

  1. How does the museum—through its history, its literature, its architecture, its collections, etc.—represent itself? What image is it trying to project?
  2. Who is encouraged to visit the museum?
  3. Is there an entrance fee?
  4. Is there a gift shop?
  5. How are visitors expected to act in the museum?
  6. What does the museum expect visitors to know?
  7. Are there guides or docents or gallery attendants? If so, what role do they play?
  8. How are the objects arranged, labeled, displayed? What do those choices suggest?
  9. Are there coherent themes that recur in the gallery? Is there a unified theme?
  10. Are donors identified in any way, e.g., a wall of donors, listed on individual displays?
  11. Are donors’ contributions indicated, e.g., by items donated, by amount of money donated?
  12. What argument is the museum trying to make? What message does it want visitors to take home?

They also thought of a few things to do while there:

  1. Choose three things (e.g., objects, cases, portraits, books, lighting, plinth) and explain what they are doing in this museum.
  2. Pick out one or two objects or display cases that surprised you in some way and explain why it surprised you?
  3. Find two or three things that are part of the display but not “on display,” e.g., lighting fixtures, handrail, curtains, and explain what they are doing, how they affect the display, what choices they represent.
A portrait of Paul Ehrlich, “The Father of Chemotherapy” according to the label.
A portrait of Paul Ehrlich, “The Father of Chemotherapy” according to the label. Read more about this portrait at the CHF webpage.

Given the smart questions students asked, I am looking forward to reading their write-ups about the visit.