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At Skidmore, writing matters And peer tutoring does too
Masters of art and science Curators share plans for a unique exhibit
Art smart Alumni art shows at Schick and Tang
Ties that grind Drama makes Israeli-Palestinian clash personal

 

 

Masters of art and science
Curators share motives and methods behind a unique new show

by Susan Rosenberg

What links Hefty bags, suburban sprawl, the sexual revolution, and the Endangered Species Act? All owe their existence to the tinkerability of one basic element: carbon.

With its balance of reactivity and stability, carbon can bind to other elements, and to itself, to create plastics, gasoline, the Pill, insecticides, and hundreds of other organic compounds that have reshaped our lives and culture.

Skidmore professor Ray Giguere (a carbon-based life form like all of us) says, “Organic chemistry is the language of the molecular world.” And he’s spearheading a project to tell and translate that language’s most captivating stories. Molecules That Matter, a Tang Museum show opening in September, presents the life histories of—and artistic commentaries on—ten pivotal molecules of the twentieth century, from penicillin to nylon to buckminsterfullerene.

“By understanding our world at the molecular level, humans have been able to alter the natural evolution of the biosphere, as well as societies and economies,” says Giguere. A mentor for many chemistry majors who’ve made their marks in frontline research, he is also an ardent advocate for basic science literacy. In the 1990s he taught a Liberal Studies course on organic synthesis and society, which introduced the how-to’s of identifying and manipulating carbon-containing molecules and then explored such ramifications as the military advantage of nylon-reinforced airplane tires, the rise of the FDA and EPA, and the dramatic increase in life expectancy in developed countries.

Giguere proposed a museum show inspired by that syllabus, and when John Weber took over as the Tang’s Dayton Director, he agreed to co-curate with Giguere. “The idea sounded interesting—and frightening,” recalls Weber with a smile. “It’s quite challenging to visually show something that’s invisibly small, like a molecule.” But soon the milestone molecule for each decade was selected, with input from a scientific advisory board and approval from two Nobel laureates in chemistry (one of whom, Roald Hoffmann of Cornell University, will visit Skidmore during the show). Eclectic artworks were requested and promised. And 300-plus artifacts were collected and then culled down.


Giguere and Weber say it wouldn’t have come together without curatorial teammate Kristen Carbone ’03, funded in part by a grant from the Chemical Heritage Foundation. CHF is the Tang’s partner in creating the show, including the fabrication of giant molecule models. Scientifically precise and visually beguiling, the models will be a signature feature of the exhibition, which will travel first to CHF’s own gallery in Philadelphia and then to several other colleges. (The Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation also provided funding for the show.)


“Luckily I like to rummage through old junk,” Carbone says, so she enjoyed scouring antique
shops and eBay online auctions for Esso gas-station souvenirs, Bayer aspirin ads, and Flit insecticide pumps. She also talked sporting-goods firms into donating high-tech new racquets and bats made with carbon nanotubes. She says she was especially intrigued by the history reflected in the artifacts, from xenophobic warnings about venereal disease in World War II to polemical books about Prozac in
the 1980s.

The show’s art promises to be equally intriguing. For instance, Melissa Gwyn paints still-lifes of plastic fruits that she’s arranged into molecular models of testosterone, progesterone, putricine, and methane, to explore the chemistry behind sex and death. Throughout the show, Giguere says, “we tried to choose only the objects that told the most evocative and compelling stories.”

Many items that can’t be included in the gallery will be picked up in the show’s online component that will allow museum-goers (and Web surfers the world round) to view documents and artifacts, zoom in and pan across them, and easily connect to related images, news, and historical analysis. The site is being built by a team of nine Skidmore students using Pachyderm, a software application for creating “rich-media” Web features.

“It’s been a learning experience for all of us,” says Weber. “We’ve turned into molecule geeks—which is exactly what Ray hoped to accomplish with this show.” Giguere says, “I want to raise awareness of how scientists develop these compounds and how powerfully and profoundly they affect our lives. Each of these molecules is a titan.”