Tag Archives: museum

Chemical Heritage Foundation Museum, Philadelphia

By Robert G W Anderson

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

Catalyst Science Discovery Centre and Museum, Widnes

By Bill Griffith and John Hudson

Lablanc Process
Lablanc Process from the historical gallery "Birth of an Industry" at Catalyst. Image courtesy of Catalyst Science Discovery Centre.

The Catalyst Science Discovery Centre is the only science and discovery centre in the country devoted to chemistry. It was opened on its current site in 1986 and is run by a charitable Trust. The building was originally built as offices for John Hutchinson’s alkali works (probably in 1862). After the absorption of Hutchinson’s by the United Alkali Company in 1891 the building was leased in 1893 (and then subsequently sold in 1898) to Barnett Dutton, Auctioneers of Widnes, later becoming part of the Gossage soap works, founded by William Gossage (1799-1877) in 1908. Finally, with the rest of the Gossage estate, it was acquired by Imperial Chemical Industries, Ltd., on 5th October, 1948, and adapted for use as laboratories. After it closed in 1961 the Gossage Building was used by several companies including Hughes and Treleaven, who were the last owner before Catalyst was established.

There are five floors. The ground floor contains a reasonably priced, comfortable café, and a large exhibition area of mainly interactive exhibits on a wide range of topics and materials, e.g. soaps, dyestuffs, autocatalysts, photovoltaic cells, batteries etc. There is a Periodic Table near the entrance where there is still space to sponsor your own element. On the first floor there are two lecture theatres and a working laboratory where no less than 900 presentations of chemical experiments were conducted last year. Various chemical processes are covered here too in the well-lit and well-arranged galleries, e.g. on the Leblanc, Solvay, Castner-Kellner and other processes; materials such as penicillin, DDT, polythene, halothane (discovered in 1951 in the nearby ICI Widnes lab.) etc. are shown. On the second floor there are exhibits on plastics. Don’t miss the top floor called the Observatory: this glass-covered structure gives magnificent, panoramic 3600 views of the surrounding Merseyside area, most of which had housed some of the world’s largest chemical industry (ICI and other firms); some are still there of course, much has gone.

Catalyst was awarded a Royal Society of Chemistry blue plaque in October 2011 to commemorate the 1951 synthesis and subsequent commercial development and use of halothane, the first inhalation anaesthetic designed by chemists. Halothane was nominated for a plaque by the RSC Liverpool Local Section, and the Historical Group was represented at the presentation by Bill Griffith and John Hudson. The ICI General Chemicals Widnes Research Laboratory, where the synthesis was achieved, has since been demolished, so the plaque was placed on the nearby Catalyst Centre, which occupies the site of the former ICI Tower laboratory. Catalyst now has a permanent display relating to halothane, and is also the repository of the ICI General Chemical Archive which contains the original documentation relating to halothane. One particular highlight is a the series of chemical demonstrations given to children belonging to the very popular Catalyst Saturday Science Club and their parents.

Historical gallery "Birth of an Industry" at Catalyst.
Historical gallery "Birth of an Industry" at Catalyst. Image courtesy of Catalyst Science Discovery Centre.

The proceedings commenced with a welcome from Dr Jenny Clucas, a Trustee of Catalyst. She outlined the role of Catalyst, which is the only science discovery centre in the country devoted to chemistry, as well as being a museum of the chemical industry. There then followed a presentation by Professor Colin Suckling, son of Dr Charles Suckling who led the team which synthesised and developed halothane. Several other members of the family were present, but Professor Suckling reported that sadly his father was too infirm to be at the event but was extremely proud that he and his team were being honoured in this way.

Professor Suckling briefly outlined the history of anaesthetics. He referred to the fact that the first attempt to establish the scientific basis of anaesthesia had been made by Dr John Snow in the nineteenth century, and that in 2008 the RSC had erected a Landmark Plaque to Snow to commemorate his demonstration of the mode of transmission of cholera. The halothane story commenced when Dr John Ferguson, ICI Head of Research, suggested to Charles Suckling that he investigate a range of fluorinated hydrocarbons as possible anaesthetic agents. The most widely used compounds at the time were chloroform, diethyl ether, nitrous oxide, and cyclopropane. The ICI research resulted in the compound 2-bromo-2-chloro-1,1,1-trifluoroethane, which was found to be far superior to the anaesthetics then in use. It was safer, non-inflammable, and had a relatively low toxicity. Known as halothane, and trademarked as Fluothane, it was used worldwide in millions of operations between 1956 and the 1990s. It still finds some application in the third world, although it has largely been superseded by halogenated ethers such as enfluane and isofluane.

Historical gallery "Birth of an Industry" at Catalyst
Historical gallery "Birth of an Industry" at Catalyst. Image courtesy of Catalyst Science Discovery Centre.

Professor Paul O’Brien, Vice-President of the RSC and Professor of Inorganic Materials at Manchester University, then spoke about the Landmark Plaque scheme. He pointed out that the scheme helps to bring to the attention of the general public the role that chemistry has played, and continues to play, in advancing human wellbeing. The RSC normally erects three or four plaques per year, but a larger number will be unveiled in 2011, the International Year of Chemistry. Halothane was a perfect subject for a plaque, and Catalyst was the ideal location for it. He then presented the plaque to Jenny Clucas. The wording on the plaque reads:

ICI General Chemicals Widnes Research Laboratory in recognition of the outstanding scientific contribution made by Charles Suckling and others, close to this site in 1951, in the synthesis and subsequent commercial development of halothane, the word’s first synthetic inhalation anaesthetic. 22 October 2011.

A visit to Catalyst is highly recommended.

Halothane chemical plaque
Professor Colin Suckling (left) and Professor Paul O’Brien presenting the Chemical Landmark Plaque for Halothane, Catalyst Science Discovery Centre and Museum, Widnes to Dr Jenny Clucas on 22 October 2011.

Further information

Address: The Catalyst Science Discovery Centre (or ‘Catalyst’ as it is simply called on the building) is on Mersey Road, Widnes, Cheshire, WA8 0DF

Website: http://www.catalyst.org.uk

Opening Hours: 1000-1700 on Tuesdays to Fridays and from 1000-1700 on Saturdays and Sundays; closed on Mondays (except during local school holidays).

There is an admission charge.

The Mendelianum, Brno

By Charles Tanford & Jacqueline Reynolds

Ancient Brno's monastery

Brno, the capital of Moravia, is a commercial city, containing the Augustinian monastery where Gregor Mendel discovered the laws of inheritance named after him. Part of the monastery is now a museum in his memory, called the Mendelianum. A patch of garden in front of the entrance is said to be Mendel’s actual experimental plot, where he did the thousands of hybridization experiments that were the basis for his results.

The number “2” is the magic number here. The statistics of Mendel’s results are the same as the statistics of tossing two coins simultaneously, and it made good sense to Mendel, for there are two sexes, allowing each metaphorical coin to be derived from one parent. It makes sense in modern terms, too, for chromosomes (not yet discovered in Mendel’s day) are generally paired. These basic principles emerge clearly from a visit to the museum, presented by means of detailed posters. Flowers planted in Mendel’s garden patch are also intended to help, but they are merely floral representations of numbers (three red and one white in the second generation, for example), unrelated to anything to do with hybridization. They may even cause confusion by obscuring the statistical nature of actual hybridization experiments.

The former refectory of the monastery now contains a sequence of showcases and posters to display the facts of Mendel’s life, education, and work, and they go on from there to a few highlights of modem genetics, such as the discovery of chromosomes and the role of DNA. Another room (a former chapter hall) is now a conference room, with contemporary furniture and a fine portrait of monk Gregor. There is also a good photograph of Mendel with some of his monastic colleagues, which shows them as anything but unworldly monks-it’s more like the annual group picture of a present-day departmental faculty.

Website: http://www.mendelianum.cz [in Czech]

American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia

By Charles B. Greifenstein

West side of the American Philosophical Society

The full official name of the Society is the American Philosophical Society, Held at Philadelphia for Promoting Useful Knowledge. The name dates to 1769, when two scientific societies merged, but the APS traces its origins to 1743, when Benjamin Franklin and others formed the organization to provide a way for its members to get together to discuss “philosophical” matters. For Franklin, “philosophical” meant natural philosophy, the study of the natural world, science, and practical knowledge.

The APS is still a membership organization, with about 1,000 elected members accomplished in a broad range of fields, from science to civic and cultural affairs to social sciences and the humanities. It is the first learned society in the United States and meets semi-annually in interdisciplinary, intellectual fellowship. The APS also has a number of core programs. Research grants support a wide range of activities, including one of the oldest grant funds for ethnographic and linguistic field work. The Publications Department publishes monographs and journals, including the oldest learned journal in the country. The Museum, whose antecedent is Charles Willson Peale’s museum of the eighteenth century, puts on exhibits that reflect the interests of the Society and its collections.

While it is an organization separate from the APS, the Philadelphia Area Center for the History of Science (PACHS), which offers fellowships, colloquia, and a federated on-line search tools, has its offices in one of the APS’ buildings.

The Museum has a changing program of temporary exhibitions, on interrelated themes of science, art and history; many – in fact most – of them are of direct interest to historians of science. See http://www.apsmuseum.org/. The Museum is located in Philosophical Hall, right next to Independence Hall, which is itself across the street from the Liberty Bell. You can visit the Liberty Bell for free any time it is open (the APS Museum, too, though donations are welcome), but you need timed tickets to see Independence Hall; tickets are free and available at the Visitors Center.

The Library has exhibits in its foyer, which is open to the public weekdays. During the summer tourist season there is an exhibit of treasures of the APS. Almost always on display is one of the original journals of Lewis and Clark, most of which were deposited in the Library by Thomas Jefferson in 1817.

Representation of waterspout accompanying "Water-spouts and Whirlwinds" by Benjamin Franklin c. 1750

Library Hall, located across the street from Philosophical Hall, is home to one of the great independent research libraries in the country. Using the Library requires registration and making an appointment (see http://www.amphilsoc.org/library/research), but should you have an interest in one of the library’s collection strengths, there are rich holdings to explore. The three main collection areas are American history before 1860 (including the papers of Benjamin Franklin and Charles Willson Peale and his family), Native American ethnography and linguistics (including the papers of Franz Boas), and, of course, the history of science.

Early natural history is represented in such collections as the Benjamin Smith Barton Papers, the papers of John LeConte, and the journals of André Michaux. The papers of ornithologist Robert Cushman Murphy are in the collection. Many other disciplines are represented: evolutionary biology (Charles Darwin, George Gaylord Simpson), physics (Edward U. Condon, John Wheeler); biochemistry (Carl Neuberg, Erwin Chargaff), computer science (John W. Tukey), bacteriology (Salvador Luria), neuroscience (Warren McCulloch), microbiology (Herbert Jennings), pathology (Peyton Rous, Simon Flexner), plant genetics (Barbara McClintock). Indeed, the genetics collection is among the best in the world and includes the papers of Theodosius Dobzhansky, L. C. Dunn, Sewall Wright, P. M. Sheppard and Curt Stern, to name a only a few. In addition, the APS is one of the largest repositories of eugenics collections in the world, holding records of such organizations as the Eugenics Records Office and the American Eugenics Society as well as the papers of Charles Davenport.

The Library also has a large collection of printed material, including some 275,000 bound volumes, thousands of maps, and tens of thousands of prints and photographs. Among the special printed collections are the Richard Gimbel Thomas Paine Collection, the Samuel Vaughan Collection (a rare, intact late 18th-early 19th century private library), and the James Valentine Charles Darwin Collection, containing works by Darwin in 25 languages.

Complete information about the American Philosophical Society can be found on its website, www.amphilsoc.org.

A Map of Lewis and Clark's Track, Across the Western Portion of North America From the Mississippi to the Pacific Ocean; By Order of the Executive of the United States, in 1804, 5 & 6. Copied by Samuel Lewis from the Original Drawing of Wm. Clark.

The “Disturbingly Informative” Mütter Museum, Philadelphia

By Robert Hicks

A view of the main Museum Gallery
A view of the main Museum Gallery. Photograph credit: George Widman, 2009, for the Mütter Museum of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia

Adorning the century-old Beaux Arts College of Physicians of Philadelphia is a large banner advertising the Mütter Museum as a “disturbingly informative” place. This prestigious historical building — now a national landmark as “the Birthplace of American Medicine” — embodies the historical medical legacy of Philadelphia and its numerous firsts: first medical school, first hospital, first school of optometry, first medical college for women, first school of pharmacy, first children’s hospital, first hospital dedicated to the eye, and more. The College hosts two collections, the Historical Medical Library and the Mütter Museum, the latter having become a cultural landmark for an audience that extends well beyond the medical cognoscenti.

The College has grown with the nation. Founded in 1787 by physicians including a signer of the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Rush, MD, the College aimed to raise the competence and standing of physicians and to relieve human suffering. The fellows, accomplished physicians who are elected to fellowship by their peers, remain at the core of the College and now number over 1400. One fellow, Thomas Dent Mütter, MD, a popular lecturer and successful physician in private practice, donated a pathological anatomy collection that opened as the namesake museum in 1863. Although the museum’s collections have been used for teaching and research throughout the museum’s history, public visitors began arrive in ever-increasing numbers from the early 1980s and now over 130,000 come yearly. At the museum people see what they cannot see elsewhere: they can explore intimately and viscerally what it means to be human.

Less conspicuous to casual visitors, the Historical Medical Library has been known internationally as one of the largest history-of-medicine collections in the United States with over 325,000 volumes including monographs, journals, manuscripts, archives, prints and photographs, pamphlets and incunabula (books printed before 1501). The library functioned as Philadelphia’s central medical library from the 1850s to the 1970s, serving its medical schools, hospitals, physicians, and other health professionals. Now, the library is conducting strategic planning to reinvent itself as a 21st-century special collections library. Administratively, the College is combining library and museum collections to elicit wider research interest and to use all collections for exhibits, web-based projects, and other initiatives. Most important, the library participates as an active member of the Medical Heritage Library, a digital consortium of east-coast libraries with substantial medical history collections (see: http://www.medicalheritage.org/).

To reckon with the new reality of electronic access and research, the Historical Medical Library has embraced the “humanities” epithet to recognize its interest in courting new audiences and to situate itself within a broader intellectual territory. Even the “Historical Medical” moniker is a re-invention to reflect a changing status. Informally, we describe the library and museum collections jointly as the Center for Medical Humanities. Our web-based outreach speaks to this humanities approach: the College collections inform our award-winning History of Vaccines website and our popular YouTube programs, What’s on the Curator’s Desk, the Mütter Minute, and No Bones about It (see: http://www.collphyphil.org/Site/mutter_museum.html). History of Vaccines speaks to the manner in which the College aims to use medical history to inform public health. In effect, the College has created its own television channel with social media and web-based programs. Additionally, happenings at the Mütter Museum and Historical Medical Library are followed through Twitter, Facebook, and Flickr.

The Hyrtl Skull wall
The Hyrtl Skull wall. Photograph credit: George Widman, 2009, for the Mütter Museum of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia.

The museum, on the other hand, contains about 25,000 specimens and artifacts with well-defined collecting foci; approximately 12% of the collection is on display. An unusual institutional survivor, the museum features its displays in 19th century vitrines and cabinets, contributing to an ambiance that visitors find attractive. To some degree, then, the Mütter is a museum of itself although its collections remain vital for historic and scientific research. The permanent exhibit contains specimens that many people return to visit as old acquaintances. The tallest skeleton in North America (7’6″) stands alongside Mary Ashberry, an achondroplastic dwarf; the conjoined livers of the original Siamese twins, Chang and Eng Bunker, reside underneath a plaster cast of the twins, produced post-autopsy; and a display on the assassination of Abraham Lincoln includes tissue removed from assassin John Wilkes Booth. Over a hundred skulls of the Hyrtl Skull Collection face the viewer, and on each skull anatomist Josef Hyrtl, MD wrote the data of scientific interest in the 1850s: name, occupation, cause of death, age, birthplace, and religion, data constituting brief and poignant life histories. Facing a collection of teratology (“monstrous births”), the tools of pioneer bronchoesophagologist Chevalier Jackson surmount drawers and drawers of swallowed objects recovered without surgery, hundreds of specimens that enthrall many visitors as unusual medical curiosities. In a corner nearby stands the skeleton of Harry Eastlack, the only complete skeleton on display in North America that shows his disease, fibrodisplasia ossificans progressiva, a rare disease in which the connective tissue ossifies, eventually suffocating the victim. Although a rare phenomenon, the key to understanding this disease is the key to understanding bone growth.

The Mütter American Giant
The Mütter American Giant. Photograph credit: George Widman, 2009, for the Mütter Museum of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia.

Exhibits and collections as rich and varied as these specimens attract researchers. Recently, a Canadian team removed samples of 19th century cholera tissues in a search for viable cholera DNA. The research aims to map cholera epidemics world-wide over two centuries and to date no pickled 19th century specimen has yielded viable DNA—until now. One sample produced the sought result. The Hyrtl skulls have always attracted researchers: following the end of civil war in former Yugoslavia, war crimes investigators studied Croat skulls in the collection to help identify anonymous victims of mass murder. Some recent exhibits have highlighted public health challenges. In response to a (funded) request from the City of Philadelphia to complement its public health program to reduce lead poisoning, the museum created The Devouring Element: Lead’s Impact on Health which featured library and museum collections to explore our love-hate relationship with lead since antiquity.

In 2013, the 150th anniversary both of the Battle of Gettysburg and the Mütter Museum, the College will open a permanent exhibit on the medical dimension of the war, Broken Bodies, Suffering Spirits: Injury, Death, and Healing in Civil War Philadelphia. The exhibit will focus on the body, affording an intimate look at a white soldier, black soldier, and white female nurse. It asks visitors to consider the health of the soldiers and nurse, expectations for health care and mortality, and their relationship to physicians. The exhibit argues that during the war, injury, recovery, and death were managed in new ways and the war changed soldiers’ relationships with their own minds and bodies.

The College has developed a close relationship with the visual arts, most recently by commissioning internationally-renowned film artists, the Quay Brothers, whose meditation on the collections resulted in the film, Through the Weeping Glass: On the Consolations of Life Everlasting (Limbos and Afterbreezes from the Mütter Museum), funded by the Philadelphia Exhibits Initiative of the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage. More information can be found here: http://www.pcah.us/the-center/newsroom/center-spotlight-september-2011/. The Museum of Modern Art curated a small exhibit on the making of the film, now on view at the College, and the film is shown throughout the day.

Our resources related to the history of science are abundant, even if a little disturbing. We invite visits or communications from historians of science. We also have a small travel grant program available to researchers: http://www.collphyphil.org/Site/travelgrants.html. Contact the Director, Dr Robert Hicks, at rhicks@collegeofphysicians.org.

Swansea Museum, Wales

By Elizabeth Bruton

Main Entrance, Swansea Museum
Main Entrance, Swansea Museum

Swansea Museum is located in the maritime area near the centre of Swansea and adjacent to the docklands that for so long provided the lifeblood of the city. A couple of minutes walk away is the National Waterfront Museum, re-housed and re-opened in 2005, which tells the story of industry and innovation in Wales over the last 300 years. This leaves Swansea Museum with the challenging task of telling the history of the city itself and of its inhabitants. In addition to the building itself, the museum also includes three other locations. Two of these, a ‘floating display’ of boats and a tramshed on Dylan Thomas Square, are both located in nearby Swansea Marina. The three boats which form the ‘floating display’ – the lightship ‘Helwick’, a tug boat called ‘Canning’ and ‘Olga’, and a Bristol Channel Pilot Cutter built in 1909 – are open to the public during the summer months. The Tramshed displays memorabilia from the former street trams of Swansea and the Mumbles tram. The route of the Mumbles tram now forms a shared-use walkway and cycle route that follows the curve of bay from Swansea city centre to the old Victorian pier at the nearby seaside town of Mumbles. The fourth museum location, the Collections Centre, is located a few miles outside of the city centre and next to Liberty Stadium, home to Swansea City Football Club. The centre is open to visitors every Wednesday, 10am to 4pm, and provides opportunities to see the reserve and maritime & industrial collections.

Columns of the neo-classical building housing the main collections of Swansea Museum
Columns of the neo-classical building housing the main collections of Swansea Museum

The museum and its main collection are housed in a wonderful neo-classical Victorian building. In 1835 a philosophical and literary society was established in Swansea and in 1841 the Royal Institution South Wales (as it was now known) built the first purpose-built museum building in Wales, built in the neo-classical style. This impressive building is now home to the Swansea Museum, making it Wales’s oldest museum. The building and the city hosted the British Association for the Advancement of Science annual meetings in 1848 and 1880. Well-known ‘men of science’ of the day such as Michael Faraday (1791-1867), Swansea-born William Robert Grove (1811-1896), and Charles Wheatstone (1802-1875) were all strong supporters of the Royal Institution South Wales and all three men lectured here on several occasions. The lecture chamber now forms part of the museum with much of the original features still intact.

History of the Royal Institution South West, Cabinet of Curiosities room, Swansea Museum
History of the Royal Institution South West, Cabinet of Curiosities room, Swansea Museum

Within the walls of this magnificent building is the main museum collection, a treasure trove of objects telling the fascinating history of the city. The downstairs section of the museum has the China Gallery, the original debating chamber, temporary exhibitions, and the museum shop. The upper floor of the museum houses displays on archaeology, Egyptology, and a cabinet of curiosities. The fruits of the commercial and industrial activities of the city are on display in the China gallery, which includes pottery as far back as early Cambrian wares (1768-90). The focus of this gallery is pottery made in Swansea, including some beautiful porcelain pottery. During my visit in January 2012 there were two temporary exhibitions, a small travelling exhibition on Amundsen and a local one on Copperopolis telling the story of Swansea, Copper and the world – both definitely of interest to historians of science and industry. The latter exhibition was housed in the former debating chamber and library.

Up the winding stairs – another original feature of the building – are displays on archaeology, Egyptology, and a cabinet of curiosities. The archaeology room covers the history of Swansea from the Pleistocene (Ice Age) to medieval period, and is modest in scope. The Egyptology display is a small room with the Mummy of Hor which has been on display almost continuously since 1888. The display is very much focussed on Egyptian history and folklore and the details of how and why this object came to Swansea are only be revealed in a small photograph in the Cabinet of Curiosities room. Further information on the object can be found on the BBC History of World objects website.

The entrance to the cabinet of curiosities room, Swansea Museum
The entrance to the cabinet of curiosities room, Swansea Museum

The Cabinet of Curiosities room is where, at least for this visitor, the museum comes to life. While lacking the content and interpretation of most modern museum displays, this room uses the breadth of the collection to explore the modern history of the city in its wider context. The room spans a wealth of displays and objects including (but not limited to): the model of a traditional Welsh kitchen; a brief history of the city including the World War Two bombing; a natural history of the Swansea area including the surrounding Gower peninsula (well worth a visit, particularly by bicycle); a history of the Royal Institution of South Wales; a Victorian lady’s room; a display on phrenology (sure to be of interest to historians of medicine); the chronology, historic urban and architectural photographs and drawings of the town; and other miscellanea. Towards the end of the Cabinet of Curiosity room is a small photograph of Field Marshal Lord Francis Wallace Grenfell (1841-1925) revealing how this Swansea-born gentleman choose a career in the Army over the family copper business and was posted to Egypt in the 1880s. Along with many educated Victorians of this age, Grenfell was greatly interested in archaeology and Egyptian history. He obtained the Mummy of Hor with the help of British Museum archaeologist Wallis Budge before gifting it to the Royal Institution of South Wales in 1888 along with the mummy’s coffin and other small funeral items. This visitor was left to wonder why this is not more prominently displayed alongside the Mummy itself?

The Phrenology display, Cabinet of Curiosities room, Swansea Museum
The Phrenology display, Cabinet of Curiosities room, Swansea Museum

This museum, its collection, and the wonderful historic building within which they are housed are well worth a visit and a day trip to Swansea could be easily filled with a trip to the Swansea Museum, the nearby Waterfront Museum, and a wander around the nearby dockland area. The museum is free to enter and has plenty to amuse, entertain, and educate those of all ages and interests, and with much to impart to interested historians of science.

Website: http://www.swansea.gov.uk/swanseamuseum

Cabinet of Curiosities room, Swansea Museum
Cabinet of Curiosities room, Swansea Museum

Booth Museum of Natural History, Brighton

The Booth Museum of Natural History on Dyke Road
The Booth Museum of Natural History on Dyke Road, by The Voice of Hassocks. Image available in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In many ways Edward Booth (1840-1890) fits almost too well into a stereotypical image of an eccentric Victorian naturalist. In the brief biography on the Royal Pavilion, Museums and Libraries website (link in further reading) the accompanying photo shows a distinguished man, dressed smartly in waistcoat and jacket topped off with a top hat and fine full beard – someone seemingly comfortable with the high social class he was born into. Booth’s diaries record the names of his hunting dogs, yet there is no mention of the name of his no-doubt long-suffering wife. It would be difficult for him to more epitomise the standard perception of a Victorian gentleman; what he collected was dependent primarily on his aim, and his goal in life was to shoot, stuff and display every life stage of every bird native to Britain. In his older years he began to grow increasingly erratic, to the point where he would fire his shotgun at the passing postmen. Not a fellow to be trifled with.

Edward Booth lived on Dyke Road in Brighton up until his death in 1890, and it is here that he founded his museum in 1874, though initially not for the public viewing. ‘The Booth Museum’ is in fact a bit of a misnomer; included amongst the exhibits are the collections of Alderman Griffith, Dr Herbert Langston, J Gordon Dalgliesh and Major Blackiston, all added to the museum in the years between Booth’s death and the 1930s. A name that referenced all of these would, however, be a struggle to fit on the sign. Thanks to this selection of collections the museum covers a surprisingly wide array of subjects, housing an extensive insect collection, a varied skeletal selection and a geology section, all nestled within the spacious main hall. The museum also has an emphasis on interactivity, possessing an area where you can touch and feel some of the exhibits. There and elsewhere one can explore the links between ancient items and their modern day equivalents, and there is an area aimed at engaging a younger audience.

Killer Whale skeleton
Killer Whale skeleton, by Leslie Chatfield. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

The modern acquisition of display specimens can be a tricky lawful and moral issue for museums. This means that the majority of stuffed animals hail from a rather simpler time where if you killed it before it killed you, almost anything was fair game. The inevitable outcome for these now antiquated animals is that they tend to become slightly worn and scruffy, sadly evident even the displays of the Natural History Museum in London. The animals in the Booth Museum remain in excellent condition, however, and the number, quantity and quality of the specimens is astonishing, all the more surprising considering the free entry. Some stand out in particular; the magnificent Golden Eagles near the entrance hall, the questionable curio of the toad in the stone and the eerie skeleton of a Killer Whale that stands guard over the skeleton hall.

The ‘Toad in the Hole’
The ‘Toad in the Hole’. Author's own work.

What marked Booth out as a collector and displayer of nature was his use of dioramas, the display of specimens within detailed sculpted environments that attempt to convey the world they inhabit. It is hard not to be impressed by the stacked dioramas that form the walls of museum, displaying from the smallest Robin to the noblest Golden Eagle. Almost all of these are perched within an approximation of their surroundings, finished with intricate details – the bodies of recently caught prey, verdant vegetation and fake bird poo. Arguably, these may only represent a snapshot of what the curators believed the birds’ habitats were like. However, they certainly serve to contextualise the birds, creating a plausible impression of life rather than simply being presented in a stark, bare environment, stripped of meaning.

It is important in the modern study of the history of science to remember that specimens in museums do not simply materialise themselves, named and annotated. Walking through the main hall of Booth’s museum, overlooked by the multitude of dioramas that line the walls, I can’t help but feel that Booth was just as fascinating a specimen as those that he collected. Placed amongst the specimens of the museum are some of the artefacts of Booth himself, including an assortment of the guns he used on his specimen hunts. Where Booth sought context in his displays, in this museum you can feel a sense of the zeitgeist, and the social world Booth inhabited. There is a section in centre of the museum that recreates the sense of a typical room in the Booth household, resplendent in aged oak furniture, a leopard skin by the fire and gloriously faded red leather backed chairs.

Diorama - Robins in an artificial ‘natural’ environment
Diorama - Robins in an artificial ‘natural’ environment. Author's own work.

The Booth Museum is funded by the Brighton Council, and thus is free to enter (though to leave a donation would no doubt be appreciated). The museum is a 20 minute walk away from Brighton and Hove station, or you can hop on one of the many buses that head in that direction. If you are in Brighton for any reason – and there are plenty of reasons to be there – then a visit for anyone with an interest in history and nature, or the simply curious and inquisitive, is very worthwhile.

Further information



Samuel J. M. M. Alberti (ed.), The Afterlives of Animals: A Museum Menagerie (University of Virginia Press, 2011)

Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia

By Robert Peck

The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University today

This article is condensed and reproduced by permission of the ANSP from www.ansp.org.

The Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia (now the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University) was founded in 1812 “for the encouragement and cultivation of the sciences, and the advancement of useful learning.” The unique aspect of this statement of purpose lies in the word “useful,” a mandate the Academy has continuously redefined through research and education that reflects the societal needs of the times.

The Academy’s history mirrors the evolution of the relationship between the American people and the natural world. The oldest natural sciences institution in the Western Hemisphere, the Academy was founded when the United States hugged the Atlantic coastline, and Philadelphia was the cultural, commercial, and scientific centre of the new nation. Classic expeditions to explore the western wilderness, such as those led by Stephen Long and Ferdinand Hayden, were closely associated with the Academy. These explorers brought back new species of plants and animals, which were studied and catalogued; they formed the foundation of the Academy’s scientific collections which now contain over seventeen million specimens.

The Academy opened its doors to the public in 1828. Here, the mysteries of nature were revealed, its chaos organized and labelled in Latin and Greek. The collections expanded so rapidly-through gifts, purchases, and exchanges as well as expeditions—that the Academy outgrew its building three times in sixty years. In 1876, its present home was built at 19th and Benjamin Franklin Parkway—then the outskirts of town, and now the heart of Philadelphia’s cultural district. With the opening of the new building, the Academy became a modern museum with areas for exhibitions and public lectures.

By the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century, Academy expeditions were ranging farther afield, to the Arctic, to Central America, and later to Africa and Asia. Plants and animals collected during these excursions were incorporated into the Academy’s magnificent dioramas, many of which were constructed in the 1920s and ’30s. To capitalize on the educational potential of the dioramas, the Academy initiated classes for students in the School District of Philadelphia in 1932. In 1948, long before water pollution and environmental degradation became topics of public concern, the Academy established the Environmental Research Division. This marked the beginning of a broadened research orientation for the Academy, which included applied research in aquatic ecosystems as well as the traditional systematics research–discovering and cataloguing organisms.

Among the Academy’s most famous early members were Thomas Say, the father of American entomology and conchology, Alexander Wilson, the father of American ornithology, and William Bartram, one of America’s earliest botanists. Another distinguished early member was Thomas Jefferson, celebrated for his political career, but less well known as a scientist. Jefferson was in fact a central player in the beginnings of American palaeontology, at a time when people were struggling with the ideas of fossils as evidence of past life, of extinction, and of an Earth far older than the Biblical account. Some of the fruits of Jefferson’s palaeontology became part of the collections at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia. Beginning in 1849 these holdings were transferred to the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, where they are currently housed. This is the Thomas Jefferson Fossil Collection.

Another important historical collection with Jeffersonian associations that is cared for by the Academy is the Lewis and Clark herbarium, made up of several hundred of the plants collected by the two explorers on their epic cross-country journey of 1804-1806.

A close-up of a Golden Eagle from Audubon’s Birds of America

One of the Academy’s most prized holdings is an original subscription copy of John James Audubon’s famous book The Birds of America. Published from 1827–1838, this monumental work is arguably the most influential book on birds ever created. It contains 435 life-sized hand-colored engravings bound into five volumes. Less than half of the 200 original sets of the “double elephant folio” survive, of which this is one. To celebrate this magnificent book – and Audubon’s association with the Academy, where he was elected a corresponding member in 1831 – an ‘Audubon page turning’ ritual has emerged. At 3.15 every week day, a member of the library staff turns a page of The Birds of America, and museum visitors are invited to see the next picture and ask any questions they may have.

Joseph Leidy (1823-1891), who helped to build the Academy’s palaeontology department in the nineteenth century and whose statue stands in front of the museum, gives perhaps the fullest sense of what science, and men of science, were like in America’s past. Leidy was an encyclopedist of the natural world and – in the words of his biographer Leonard Warren – “the last man who knew everything.” Unlike the narrow experts who now make up the scientific profession, Leidy was an amateur polymath of nature; his knowledge spread (and was solicited) far and wide. He was known as the “Father of American Vertebrate Paleontology”, but besides this he was also a pioneering anatomist, parasitologist, protozoologist and natural historian. An enthusiastic supporter of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, it was Leidy who saw to it that Darwin was elected to corresponding membership in the Academy in 1860 – the first American institution to so honour him following his publication of On the Origin of Species.

Today, the Academy is a world leader in biodiversity and environmental research, a focus that is reflected in its research, its education and its outreach work. Its permanent exhibits of contemporary science include butterflies, dinosaurs, dioramas, and a live animal centre. And for those who are curious about the history of science, but cannot visit in person, the Academy’s website hosts some excellent interactive collections, including Audubon’s daily page turning, Leidy’s works, and Jefferson’s fossils.

Further reading

Robert McCracken Peck and Patricia Tyson Stroud, A Glorious Enterprise: The Academy of Natural sciences of Philadelphia and the Making of American Science (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012)


Museum Boerhaave, Leiden

By Charles Tanford & Jacqueline Reynolds


The Museum Boerhaave is has funding problems and is in danger of being closed in January 2013. For further information and how to donate, see Save Museum Boerhaave campaign.

17th century science in Boerhaave museum Leiden

The most interesting building of the present university is at No. 73 Rapenburg, one of the prettiest streets in Leiden, with a canal down the middle. The building contains an Aula (or Senate Chamber), the walls of which are lined with handsome portraits of most of its early and some of its more recent professors, and there is a lovely wooden staircase leading up to it. Unfortunately, this chamber is still in use for examinations and other university functions, and it is not open to the public, but the rest of the building can be admired. (The doorway to No. 73 also provides access to the university’s botanical garden.)

Boerhaave Museum. This museum, named after the former professor and physician, has been in existence for many years, but it has recently been completely restructured and installed in brand new quarters on the site of the former Boerhaave hospital. At an artistic level it has been beautifully done-the renovation retains the original architecture and the exhibit layout is spacious and encourages unhurried perusal. The emphasis is historical rather than didactive. with contents arranged in chronological sequence and not by subject area. We are made acutely aware that the division of science into specialized fields is a recent phenomenon and that in Leiden’s heyday the distinction between physics, chemistry, and even medicine was blurred. The museum has a commendable international flavor, less chauvinistic than might be expected, though achievements of Netherlands scientists are of course properly stressed. The Dutch have long been instrument makers for much of the world and a predominance of instruments in the exhibits reflects that-the collections of surgical tools, telescopes, and microscopes are especially noteworthy. Even seasoned specialists will be fascinated by the technical advances that the chronological style of the museum naturally unfolds.

One of the highlights of the museum is a faithful reproduction of Boerhaave’s anatomy theater, clearly patterned after the prototype in Padua. Individual instruments include three of van Leeuwenhoek’s original microscopes (which prove to have extremely tiny lenses), Leyden jars and batteries, Huygens clocks, as well as more modem items, such as the first artificial kidney (dialysis machine), designed by Dutchman Willem Kolff in 1943, and a prototype electron microscope manufactured by the Philips Co. in 1947. The museum also has a fine archival library, which occupies the site of the cells in which madmen were kept in the old hospital. (Is there a hidden message here?)

The Franklin Institute and Other Sites in Philadelphia Related to Benjamin Franklin, USA

By Paul Halpern

In honour of Benjamin Franklin’s 306th birthday (this article was published on 17 January 2012) and the upcoming 2012 Three Societies’ Meeting in Philadelphia, we have a special BSHS Travel Guide entry on sites relating to Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia written by Paul Halpern, Professor of Physics at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia.

Benjamin Franklin, inventor, scientist, and statesman, lived in Philadelphia from 1723 until his death in 1790 (aside from multiyear stays in London and Paris). His contributions to the study of electricity capped an impressive career dedicated to public service. In Philadelphia numerous places and institutions carry his name. The Franklin Institute, funded in part through funds set aside from Franklin’s will, is one of many sites honouring Franklin in the city.

Located on Logan Square, at 20th Street and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, in the heart of Philadelphia’s museum district, the Franklin Institute is a large, classically-styled building with a columned façade. It houses one of the leading hands-on science museums in the United States, a collection of Franklin artifacts, and the Benjamin Franklin National Memorial.

Benjamin Franklin National Memorial
Benjamin Franklin National Memorial

With a spacious rotunda designed by noted architect John Torrey Windrim and modelled after the Pantheon in Rome, the Memorial serves as the Institute’s main entrance. It is the only section of the Institute building that is free to the public; the science museum has an entrance fee. In the center of the Memorial is a six-metre high statue of Franklin, sculpted by James Earle Fraser. Beyond the Memorial is the science museum, which features numerous exhibits including a 26-metre Foucault pendulum, and a large steam train built in 1926. Outside the museum building is a Grumman Lunar Module, built for the Apollo program.

Another Philadelphia museum dedicated to Franklin is Franklin Court, the site of his former home and print shop, located near the corner of Market Street (Philadelphia’s high street) and Third Street. Although the original building had been demolished, in 1976, during the bicentennial of American independence, the ruins of the house’s cellar and foundations were excavated, and new structures were built to offer a sense of how it looked. An underground museum, free to the public, showcases Franklin’s achievements.

Bolt of Lightning sculpture
Bolt of Lightning sculpture

Several streets away from Franklin Court are other notable sites related to Franklin. Franklin’s grave is located in Christ Church cemetery near the corner of Fifth Street and Arch Street. It is a tradition to toss pennies on his grave marker for good luck. At Fifth and Vine Street is the entrance to the Benjamin Franklin Bridge. Within its entrance plaza stands a metal sculpture commemorating Franklin’s reported ‘kite and key’ electrical experiment. Designed by Japanese-American artist Isamu Noguchi to depict a kite and a lightning bolt, it is called Bolt of Lightning and was erected in 1984.

Franklin Wall Plaque at the corner of Fourth and Arch Streets, Philadelphia
Franklin Wall Plaque at the corner of Fourth and Arch Streets, Philadelphia

Franklin was the founder of many organisations and scholarly institutions, including the American Philosophical Society and the University of Pennsylvania. The original site of the latter, the corner of Fourth and Arch Streets, is commemorated by a wall plaque.

The current site of the University of Pennsylvania is in the western part of Philadelphia. There stands yet another Franklin memorial, a bronze statue of a seated Franklin created by John J. Boyle in 1899.

Bronze statue of a seated Franklin created by John J. Boyle in 1899.
Bronze statue of a seated Franklin created by John J. Boyle in 1899.

Further information

Address: Franklin Institute, 222 North 20th Street, Philadelphia, PA 19103


  1. Paul Halpern, “Philadelphia: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Physics,” Physics in Perspective 11, No. 2, (2009), pp. 209-227.
  2. The Franklin Institute website: http://www.fi.edu