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Molecules that Matter

Posted: 08/06/2007

The Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery’s upcoming exhibition, “Molecules That Matter,” September 8–April 13, will showcase 10 molecules, each associated with a decade of the 20th century: aspirin, isooctane, penicillin, polyethylene, nylon, DNA, progestin, DDT, Prozac, and buckminsterfullerene and carbon nanotubes. “Molecules That Matter” is a partnership of the Tang and the Chemical Heritage Foundation of Philadelphia.

This unique interdisciplinary show—fueled by the vision and passion of Professor of Chemistry Ray Giguere—will bring together contemporary art by nationally recognized artists, historical artifacts and documents representing the cultural history of each molecular substance, shown alongside scientifically accurate, aesthetically elegant, newly commissioned large-scale molecular models.

Arguably, the centerpiece of the show will be the giant-sized models, executed in the ball-and-stick style familiar from organic chemistry class, and ranging in size from six to 14 feet. Why so big? Because at the end of the day, these molecules have had and continue to have an astounding influence on virtually every aspect of our lives, and most of us don’t even know it. As co-curator John Weber says, “These molecules aren’t visible to the naked eye, and yet they are bigger than we are.”

Building them was no small matter, especially given the mandate that they must be accurate, elegant, and sturdy enough to assemble and reassemble for as many as four upcoming exhibitions across the country. After securing more than $100,000 in funding from the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation and the Chemical Heritage Foundation of Philadelphia, co-curators Giguere and Weber chose Phil Fraley Productions, Inc., an exhibit fabrication company located in Paterson, N.J. The company is best known for its innovative fossil mounts, including a Tyrannosaurus rex.

Fraley Productions had never produced such molecular structures and to the best of its team’s knowledge, no one else had either. This was both scary and exciting. And not everything was smooth sailing. In early July, Weber, Giguere, a third curator, Kristen Carbone ’03, and several Tang installation specialists journeyed to Fraley’s fabrication facility to check on progress and hopefully give approval. Happily, they were very enthusiastic about what they saw—the appearance of the work, the accuracy of the work, and the ease with which the molecules could be assembled. Plans were made for a mid-August delivery of nine molecules (all except DNA) to Saratoga Springs, just in time for the September 8 opening of “Molecules That Matter.”