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Past Exhibitions

We have mounted numerous exhibitions featuring objects from our collections as well as objects on loan.

Water Pics

This outdoor exhibition featured a series of posters created in 1951 by the Pennsylvania Sanitary Water Board. A companion to our Downstream exhibition, the images adorned our Chestnut Street façade from September 2021 to September 2022.

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Between Us and Catastrophe

This outdoor exhibition showcased portraits of the pandemic’s essential workers taken by Philadelphia photographer Kyle Cassidy. The large-scale photos were installed on our building’s Chestnut Street façade from October 2020 through August 2021.

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Age of Alchemy

For many of us alchemy conjures up images of mysticism or a fool’s quest for gold. But alchemy’s golden age was much more. This era was stranger than fiction and more curious than myth. We invite you to step into the real Age of Alchemy.

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Things Fall Apart

If nothing lasts forever, how and why do we save what we save? Everything falls apart: compounds break down, solids crumble, surfaces rust. We’re surrounded by constant change as we reclaim, reuse, or reimagine our material environment. Yet decay is also connected to our hopes for the future and our understanding of the past. Our impulse to protect treasured objects is a desire to hold onto the stories they tell. But whose stories survive? This exhibition and walking tour explored the life and afterlife of things—and why we fight to preserve them. 

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Second Skin: The Science of Stretch

Stretch fabrics provide a second skin that can shift our perception of our bodies, enhance our athletic performance, even improve our health. Second Skin: The Science of Stretch featured garments and textile-based medical devices created over the last century. From 1920s corsets and girdles to today’s lymphedema sleeves with a fashionable flair, these second skins changed how we move through the world. 

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Transmutations: Alchemy in Art

In artistic depictions of alchemy, science and art blend to tell nuanced stories about the cultures that produced the two fields. The tone of European alchemical art from across the centuries can range from representational to humanizing, often using caricature, subtle satire, and theatrical gestures and poses. This exhibition featured depictions of chemistry and alchemy from the 17th through the 19th century. 

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Science at Play

Chemistry sets and science toys contained much more than their parts. Savvy marketing slogans played to parents’ hopes for the future success of their children and to the children’s own desires for fun and excitement. The first major museum exhibition to explore the many facets of these miniature laboratories for children, Science at Play drew from our collection of more than 250 science kits and toys. It lifted the lid to reveal stories of enterprise, aspiration, discovery, magic, and mayhem.

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Books of Secrets

Alongside the flasks and fires in the alchemist’s laboratory lay another tool no less vital to alchemical practice: the written word. For centuries books and manuscripts were used to disseminate alchemical ideas, trials, techniques, and secrets. These texts reveal both the scientific rigor and the strange beauty of alchemical practice. Books of Secrets: Writing and Reading Alchemy placed actual books used by alchemists alongside historical artworks portraying their use.

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Sensing Change

Inspired by scientific investigation, historical accounts, and direct observation, the artwork in this exhibition explored not only daily shifts in our environment but also long-term climate change. The exhibition continues online: watch video conversations with artists and atmospheric scientists, and explore historical context through instruments in our collections.

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The Alchemical Quest

As the science of matter, alchemy had a wide range of applications, including metallurgy, distillation, chemical medicine, and transmutation. This exhibition, which featured rare alchemical books of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries drawn exclusively from the collections of the Othmer Library, engaged visitors in an exploration of the golden age of alchemy, and encouraged them to recognize alchemy as the root of modern chemistry.

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Inspiring Youth in Chemistry

The United Nations designated 2011 the International Year of Chemistry. This exhibition explored three programs that reached out to the world’s youth to encourage them to become more engaged with science and their chemical world. 

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Elemental Matters: Artists Imagine Chemistry

The artists in Elemental Matters invented different ways to experience the elements and the periodic table. Listen for the sound of phosphorus. Read hydrogen in braille. View 400 tiny red lights fueled by potassium residues in a mountain. See a body’s nitrogen quota contained in a flask.

Marvels and Ciphers: A Look Inside the Flask

For centuries, with means ranging from alchemy to quantum-enabled technologies, scientists have struggled to understand the material world—with varying degrees of success. Public responses to scientific debate and discovery are even more varied. Breakthroughs can elicit fascination and hope as well as anxiety and fear. With paintings, photographs, books, and cartoons, Marvels and Ciphers explored the inevitable social complexity of scientific pursuits.

Molecules That Matter

This exhibition showcased 10 organic molecules that profoundly altered our world in the 20th century: aspirin, isooctane, penicillin, polyethylene, nylon, DNA, progestin, DDT, Prozac, and buckminsterfullerene. By associating each molecule with a decade of the 20th century, the show demonstrated the impact molecular science has had on us as individuals and as a society.