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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Stephen Johnston on Early-Modern Chymistry

Posted by Darin Hayton on 01/27 at 04:00 PM

Stephen Johnston from the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford is in town for the next week or so, spending his time at the Chemical Heritage Foundation. Today he gave the obligatory Brown Bag Lecture entitled Museum Matters: Planning a New Exhibition on Early-Modern Chymistry. Stephen is an entertaining and engaging speaker who wears his erudition lightly. His presentations are always lively, informative, and very smart.



The Musuem of the History of Science, Oxford

Stephen grounded his thoughts about a new exhibition on chymistry in a specific local history of the Old Ashmolean Museum, which today is the home to The Museum of the History of Science. The Ashmolean, the first purpose built public museum opened in 1683. The basement was a chemical laboratory, the ground floor was a teaching space, and the upstairs was a gallery (closer to what we think of as a museum today). For Elias Ashmole and early museum visitors, there was nothing unusual about combining these three activities: producing (chemical/natural) knowledge in the basement; disseminating that knowledge in the lecture hall; celebrating that knowledge and connecting it to the broader natural and artificial worlds in the upper gallery.

A decade ago, when the Museum of the History of Science underwent extensive renovation and expansion, they unearthed a massive collection of early chemical apparatus and bones (for an interesting report, see Solomon’s House in Oxford: New Finds from the First Museum). Stephen wants to use this material to conceptualize and organize a new exhibit on chymistry in the basement gallery of the museum, that is, in the original chemical laboratory space.

Such an exhibition would draw on the museum’s own material culture and the ideologies that framed the museum’s MA course on instruments and the history of science. Further, he wants to think seriously about how to stage the exhibit so that it would incorporate the archeological finds, the laboratory space, the historical chemical practice, tactile experiences as well as art. He also wants to draw on new technologies, e.g., video and other multimedia, to enhance the exhibit. He presented an ambitious project that would go quite some way to recreating the much broader range of activities that were common in the original Ashmolean. In the process, the exhibit would not only reshape how visitors understood early-modern chymistry, but also connect chymistry to other contemporary practices, such as art, natural history, ceramics, and various crafts.


Stephen Johnston delivers a Brown Bag talk at the CHF. He spoke about how to stage an early-modern chymistry exhibit.

Along the way, Stephen made a number of suggestive comments:

  • About how putting together exhibitions is historiographically useful because it prompts him to make connections he wouldn’t otherwise make—here he seems to mean between objects, practices, and texts— some excellent points.
  • About the relationship between natural history and chymistry/chemical philosophy and natural philosophy, which he illustrated by looking at Robert Plot’s The Natural History of Oxfordshire.
  • About how the arts and crafts in 17th-century England participated in the development of experimental practices—here he mentioned John Dwight’s experimental approach to making ceramics.
  • About how the persistence of chemical apparatus across the 16th and 17th centuries underscores the connection between alchemy and chemistry.

There was certainly more to Stephen’s talk than this brief summary includes. But you had to be there.

Tags: chymistry, exhibitions, museum of the history of science, museums, stephen johnston

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