About Robert G W Anderson

Robert G W Anderson was Keeper of Chemistry at the Science Museum (1980-84); Director of the British Museum (1992-2002); President, BSHS, 1989-91; Fellow of Clare Hall, Cambridge 2006-present.

Wagner Free Institute of Science, Philadelphia

Wagner Free Institute of Science, from 'Manufacturer and Builder' (1874)

Wagner Free Institute of Science, from 'Manufacturer and Builder' (1874). Image available in the public domain.

The Wagner Free Institute of Science has its origins in the adult education movement which had started in 1821 in Great Britain with the foundation of the Edinburgh School of Arts, a similar movement developing only very slightly later in the United States. Philadelphia was a thriving commercial city by the first half of the nineteenth century; culturally some institutions, including the Library Company (1721), the University of Pennsylvania (1740) and the American Philosophical Society (1743) had been established pre-Independence. These catered for the middle, educated classes. The Franklin Institute for the Promotion of the Mechanic Arts, founded 1824, was more in the nature of a British mechanics institute. William Wagner (1796-1885), a Philadelphian of German descent, felt that there was a need to provide more educational opportunities for working people. He had become wealthy as a merchant in the lumber trade and he had a passion for natural history. In 1840 he sold his business, which provided him with sufficient capital to live the remainder of his life as a gentleman and philanthropist.

In 1843, Wagner purchased an estate to the north-west of Philadelphia and his embryo institute and museum were initially to develop there for “the free dispersion of scientific knowledge among the citizens of his native city.” In 1847 he offered a “Course of Lectures on Mineralogy, treated Chemically & Metallurgically… Illustrated by Specimens” and he later developed further courses on geology, mineralogy, and conchology. All the while, he was creating large collections. In 1855 he handed these over to trustees, teaching resources which by this stage also included “a library, philosophical apparatus, extensive assortments of diagrams illustrating geological phenomena, maps and cabinet cases.”

From 1859 to 1865, a fine purpose-built institute was constructed in neo-classical style, and it survives to this day. It originally included a library, classrooms, a lecture theatre and a large museum hall for natural history on the upper level. Following Wagner’s death in 1885, the building was somewhat remodelled and the museum was revised under the supervision of Joseph Leidy (1823-1891), professor of anatomy at the University of Pennsylvania. It is this reorganised display which is the basis of today’s museum and it is a remarkable survival: very few of today’s museum presentations can be seen to follow the organisation of a nineteenth-century display so closely. Most specimens are presented in cherry wood cases constructed in the 1880s and many retain the original handwritten curators’ labels. A particular strength is the collection of fossils from American sites, many of them collected by Wagner himself (see Earle E Spamer and Catherine A Forster A Collection of Type Fossils in the Wagner Free Institute… with a History of Paleontology at the Institute (Philadelphia 1988)). Sadly, the philosophical instrument collection, used for teaching by demonstration, is much diminished. The ground floor of the building, which includes the library and lecture theatre, has a splendid varnished-wood, Victorian quality about it. Lecture courses on scientific subjects continue to the present day, though they are now organised at a number of sites around the city as well as in the original building. The serial Transactions of the Wagner Free Institute of Science commenced publication in 1887, though it appeared irregularly.

The Wagner Free Institute survives in a somewhat run-down part of the city and is best visited by taxi.

Address: The Wagner Free Institute of Science, 1700 West Montgomery Avenue, Philadelphia, PA 19121, USA
Website: http://www.wagnerfreeinstitute.org
Tel: (001) 215-763-6529

Chemical Heritage Foundation Museum, Philadelphia

Chemical Heritage Foundation Museum, opened 2008

Chemical Heritage Foundation Museum, opened 2008

The Chemical Heritage Foundation has evolved from the Center for the History of Chemistry which was established in 1982 as a joint project of the University of Pennsylvania and the American Chemical Society. It has developed independently since 1987 and it assumed its present name in 1992. The guiding force of the organisation up to 2007 was the historian of chemistry, Arnold Thackray; the current President is Tom Tritton. The CHF occupies a substantial former bank and adjacent buildings in the historical area of Philadelphia (contiguous to the site of Benjamin Franklin’s house, which was destroyed in 1812). The CHF offers resources to science historians, and it awards a number of fellowships annually. It has a massive library of more than 100,000 volumes (the catalogue can be accessed on-line), archival and graphic collections and a major resource of historical chemical instruments. A group which conducts research into contemporary chemical science policy oversees the production of oral histories, of which there are now more than 425. The CHF issues a magazine three times a year, Chemical Heritage, and it publishes monographs in

There are few really significant displays of the history of chemistry to be seen anywhere in the world. The CHF’s Masao Horiba Gallery is one of the few, and it is amongst the most recent. Its importance is based on a coherent and systematic collecting policy, and intelligent displays which are addressed primarily to thinking adults. As the development of the CHF’s museum activity only started rather recently, the strength of the collection lies in the period since the Second World War. Expert advice to the CHF has been provided by a group of distinguished chemists, meeting twice a year, who themselves were involved in the development and use of analytical instrumentation. Dedicated curators on the staff arrange to collect, conserve and store items which are identified as being desirable for the collection. It was they who developed the current permanent gallery, opened in 2008, named ‘Making Modernity’. There is additionally a small gallery for changing exhibitions.

The displays are strongly object-based and deal with challenging topics. The main hall includes islands of objects which are concerned with instrumentation and how measurements are used to illuminate chemical problems. Around the edge of this gallery are displays showing earlier techniques and some of the novel products developed by chemists, such as dyes and synthetic materials. Dominating the space is the very large Video Column which is an innovative and thrilling form of presenting the chemical elements, indicating what their properties are by means of short film clips. Above the main hall, and adjacent to an excellent modern conference centre, runs a gallery with cases presenting displays about chemists and themes. The CHF possesses a collection of portraits, including particularly fine examples of Robert Boyle, Joseph Priestley (who spent the last ten years of his life in Pennsylvania) and Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac. One of the themes concerns young people’s chemistry sets and teaching more generally. The display was developed with the design input of the well-known New York firm of Ralph Appelbaum Associates, and for those who know about such things, the presentation bears their strong signature. An extremely important group of seventeenth and eighteenth century paintings which are displayed (but not in the area to which the general public is admitted) offer representations of alchemists in their laboratories (see Lawrence M Principe and Lloyd DeWitt Transmutations: Alchemy in Art (CHF: Philadelphia, 2002)).

Chemistry displays in museums are particularly difficult to develop. Conceptually, the subject is difficult for most visitors. The objects themselves may be important, but that does not make them visually compelling. It is all too easy to end up with a ‘book on a wall’ type of display which offers verbal explanation, but little else. The CHF has been aware of the problems and the dangers which lurk. A visit for science historians is highly recommended (it has to be admitted that the author of this piece was involved in the establishment of ‘Making Modernity’), in part to act as a focus for discussion of the public presentation of recent science history. A particularly interesting comparison is with the Museum of the Royal Institution, London, which was developed at more or less the same time.

Address: Chemical Heritage Foundation Museum, 315 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, PA 19106, USA
Website: http://www.chemheritage.org
Tel: (001) 215-925-2222

The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia

Albert C Barnes (1874-1951), chemist and art collector

Albert C Barnes (1874-1951), chemist and art collector. Image available in the public domain.

The Barnes Foundation was established in 1922 by Albert C Barnes (1872-1951), an eccentric chemist whose successful development of an anti-venereal disease drug made him a fortune. With this he acquired ethnographic art and paintings, particularly of the French impressionist and post-impressionist schools, and early modern art. He had a purpose-built gallery constructed, designed by Paul Philippe Cret, and it included highly original decoration including cubist bas-reliefs by Jacques Lipchitz. In this he displayed the ethnography alongside the fine art, understanding well how African artefacts had influenced many of the artists whose work he collected. His remarkably rich collection includes 181 Renoirs, 69 Cézannes (‘The Card Players’ is particularly well-known), 59 Matisses, 46 Picassos, etc.

Barnes was constantly at war with the Philadelphia establishment whom he despised and his gallery had been deliberately constructed in an unfashionable suburb of the city, Merion, away from the centre. Control was in the hands of Lincoln University, an establishment for black students. In the 1990s, the Barnes Foundation ran into financial difficulties and, in violation of Barnes’ will, controversial plans were devised by the city to transfer the collection much closer to the centre of Philadelphia. The legal challenge against the move was ultimately unsuccessful and the collection will now move into a new, and probably largely sympathetic, building near to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Rodin Museum and a number of other cultural institutions lined along the Ben Franklin Parkway. It will open in May 2012. The original building will remain accessible to the extent that it will retain a horticulture programme associated with Barnes’ arboretum, and will house the Foundation’s archives.

A strongly critical, polemical, film about background to the proposed move, ‘The Art of the Steal’, was made in 2009; it is well worth watching.

Website: http://www.barnesfoundation.org
Address: The Barnes Foundation, 2025 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia, PA 19130, USA
Telephone: (001) 215-640-0171