If you’ve ever passed 315 Chestnut St. in Society Hill and wondered what the Chemical Heritage Foundation was all about, take a leap of faith and enter. You’ll find a gem of a museum that makes science thoughtful, provocative and fun.
Inside, you will find that the main exhibit as well as the feature exhibit, Elemental Matters: Artists Imagine Chemistry, takes you through a journey of chemistry you have never seen before. It shows you the chemistry that has produced the blue, red, magenta and purple colors you wear on your shirts, jeans, tank-tops and pencil-thins. It shows you the chemistry behind the death of George Washington. And it allows you to see the elements in your body as well as the air you breathe.
The chemistry is intellectually stimulating and quite entertaining. But by itself, it serves as only the glass frame of a plain chandelier in the middle of an antique Bohemian loft. Some sort of light has to illuminate that chandelier. Some sort of light has to allow each engraved groove to bend and diffract that illumination into its constituent colors, thereby producing a meaningful image.
So what is this light? Philosophy. The philosophy behind the chemical aspects of nature compels us to visualize the strategically placed, hand-carved chandelier grooves that constitute the subtle meaning — the art — to a beautiful science.
The synergy of chemistry with the philosophy and art describing it can be seen as you enter a set of double doors within the general exhibit. “You have now entered Elemental Matters: Artists Imagine Chemistry,” your tour guide announces. The second you walk into the room, eerie chords synthesized by artist Susan Alexjander softly play in the background and stop you in your tracks. Which minor chord is being played? E minor? F sharp minor? C minor? You can’t figure it out. But each note elicits a calling from your soul that is so soft-spoken and tender that you want to cry out in delight.
As you feel the joy of auditory art all around you, your eyes set upon the panel that describes this music. As you read the description, a smug smile sets on your lips. All of the 92 natural elements were created in the belly of an exploding dying star, and electromagnetic frequencies of elements such as hydrogen, helium, carbon and silicon were brought down many octaves to audible frequencies. So it’s not a particular minor chord that you are hearing, but rather the frequencies of chemical elements that are harmonically ordered to produce what Alexjander describes as “perfect relations of the harmonic series (overtones), representing perfect octaves, perfect fifths, and exact third ratios.”
Emotionally touched, you are far from done with this room of enlightenment. You whirl around, and your eyes stop when they see “The Song of Which,” by Dove Bradshaw. The letter “O” represents oxygen and circles the face of the naked woman. She has a transparent veil over her naked front side embroidered with the names of the elements found in her body in descending order of abundance. The elements drape down the transparent veil until the height of the veil is in equilibrium with what many deem the most sacred component of female anatomy.
What does all this mean? You start talking to your neighbor, and that neighbor with his neighbor, and soon enough, there is an entire group of people heeding the call of unresolved art. Normally, the oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen, and calcium in the body are protected from the outside environment by the skin on the woman’s body. But in this case, the purity of the naked woman is safeguarded by the veil of pure elements. This artistic inversion raises a tough question to answer: is it the beauty of a woman’s skin or the beauty of elements in the human body that confer the pure, pristine image of a woman?
As you finally leave the exhibit Elemental Matters: Artists Imagine Chemistry, you see chemistry as a fluorescent dodecahedron that can be viewed in countless ways. With the intuition and knowledge you have gained from the main exhibit, you have understood and engaged with chemistry-infused art in Elemental Matters: Artists Imagine Chemistry. And it is through the thought-provoking questions from inquisitive viewers like you that stimulate the ideas pushing the thresholds of tomorrow.
For more information on the general exhibit, and on Elemental Matters: Artists Imagine Chemistry, visit the Chemical Heritage Foundation. Elemental Matters: Artists Imagine Chemistry is open through Dec. 16. The entire exhibit is only a SEPTA token away. And on top of that, it’s free. See you there.
Ali Rahim Aziz is a College junior. His email address is email@example.com.