Wednesday, July 01, 2009

The ‘Please don’t touch’ museum at CHF

Posted by on 07/01 at 02:04 PM When I grew up, I did not see many museums. But whenever I did go to see the municipal collection of my hometown or see a village exhibit, one thing was clear: a museum was like a library, and that was a bit like a church (minus the praying and the singing). As a museum visitor, you become invisible in the presence of so much history. You do not speak above a whisper, move carefully, and for heaven’s sake, do not touch anything, including the museum guards (who were really part of the inventory). Artifacts were to be approached with caution, almost on tiptoe, and revered as ‘things from the past’. You read the label, then think for a bit, let the awe sweep over your little head, give an almost invisible nod to the object, and then move on to the next case. Unfortunately, my early historical education consisted of learning dates, names and facts in school, and it was not until much later that I learned to like hearing about the past.

Later on, museums became prime destinations at home and abroad whenever I was looking for inspiration, solitude and enlightenment. In many British museums you are left to roam, ponder and admire at your own, leisurely pace, and, of course, to relax with a cup of tea and scone in the tea room. While some London museums are crawling with tourists or school groups, there is an almost naturally orderly manner of museum-ing. My view may of course be clouded with the nostalgia of one who left England exactly two years ago, but the unspoken rules still ring true: museum visitors exist in their own little bubbles and keep conversations to themselves.

Imagine my surprise when I prepared for staffing the Chemical Heritage Foundation’s museum for First Friday* this week: apparently, our visitors like to be welcomed personally, directed to particularly interesting parts of the exhibit, and they will even strike up a conversation with staff or other visitors. There are tales of kids running wild (and straight into glass walls), and I have heard people talk merrily in the collections myself! What, what??

Well, our museum is not only in Philadelphia, and free and open to the public, but also peculiar in many other ways: most of the objects are not in glass cases, but pretty much free standing. Luckily, our visitors do understand the ‘do not touch’ rule. And if they feel like touching something, there is always the case containing synthetics, which actually invites them to feel some materials.

Then, this museum is about this history of chemistry – yikes! Well, you might say that – or you might come in and look at the objects, listen to guide-by-cell tours, come in for a guided tour, ask our staff for more information, bring your family, experience chemistry hands-on in our First Friday demonstrations… and get absorbed in your own way. That is what we have been seeing since the museum opening almost 9 months ago. And if you talk and laugh, point and stare, and do a little ‘I had no idea the history of chemistry was for me’-dance (without a backpack, of course, dancing slowly and in a controlled manner, without bumping into, say, glass walls), that is just fine with us.

So, is this a museum in the same sense as, say, the British Museum? The Mütter Museum? The Philadelphia Museum of Art? Yes and no. (A sentence I am loathe to use, but there it is). The one thing all these have in common is that they are “Please Don’t Touch” museums. Anything else you can find out yourself. We are open Monday through Friday, 10am-4pm; and First Fridays 10am-8pm.

* First Friday at the Chemical Heritage Foundation, including “Make your own batteries” (from lemons!) demonstrations, every hour on the hour from 1-7pm. Find out more at Information about the museum is available at

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