Elements of the Past

Audra J. Wolfe reviews The Laboratorio Chimico at The Museum of Science of the University of Lisbon.

By Audra J. Wolfe | May 8, 2009

The Laboratorio Chimico
The Museum of Science of the University of Lisbon
Rua da Escola Politénica, 581250–102 Lisbon
+351 21 392 18 08

Empty spaces hold enormous power. A visitor’s first impression of the Laboratorio Chimico at the Museum of Science at the University of Lisbon is of a large, open, Victorian space filled with the possibility of scientific discovery. Ten empty lab benches, each topped with white tile, some equipped with gas and water hookups, appear to be awaiting the arrival of a class full of enthusiastic 19th-century technical students. The walls, lined with fume hoods and cabinets of period reagents, complete the time capsule effect. The lack of labels and interpretive materials somehow adds to, rather than detracts from, the experience.

Laboratorio Chimico

The Laboratorio Chimico at the Museum of Science at the University of Lisbon

The Laboratorio Chimico at the Museum of Science at the University of Lisbon.

Museum of Science at the University of Lisbon

Although the Laboratorio Chimico is the newest of the permanent exhibits at the Museum of Science, it is also in some ways the oldest. The entire museum is housed within the university’s old Polytechnic School building, most of which was extensively renovated to house the museum’s planetarium, astronomical observatory, natural history exhibits, library, and shop after the university’s faculty of sciences moved to newer quarters in 1985. Until recently, however, the original chemistry laboratory sat empty and unused, more or less abandoned as administrators tried to figure out what to do with it. The laboratory had been in continuous operation as a working teaching facility for almost 150 years, housing lectures and demonstrations since the school’s opening in 1837 until a major fire in 1978. In 2000 the museum announced a fundraising campaign to restore the laboratory and the adjoining lecture hall to their late 19th-century glory. The results are magnificent and make the Museum of Science a required stop on any visit to Lisbon.

The space itself is an architectural gem, but its contents are the real draw for chemists and historians. Over the course of the last two centuries, first the Polytechnic School and later the University of Lisbon held on to laboratory equipment even as it gradually became inoperative or obsolete. Collectively, these 3,000 items—stored in closets, attics, and offices of former lecturers—offer an unparalleled glimpse into changing laboratory practices, scientific theories, and pedagogical technique. Of the tiny fraction of these items on display, highlights include an alembic, a laboratory scale, various Bunsen burners, an earthenware kiln, and an air pump. The collection also includes reactants, glassware, teaching models and charts, catalogs, and textbooks. A cabinet containing samples of beans, nuts, and snake oil (yes, actual snake oil) prepared for an 1884 agricultural exposition is particularly evocative of the work that was once conducted within the walls.

The adjacent lecture theatre is an attraction in itself. Busts of Antoine Lavoisier, Justus Liebig, and August Hofmann overlook semicircular tiers of seats surrounding a central horseshoe-shaped lab bench. A custom fume hood with openings to both the hall and the laboratory allowed assistants to prepare lecture demonstrations unnoticed by the curious public. Today the museum uses this space as a public outreach venue, hosting poetry readings and theatrical and musical performances. Because of preservation concerns, scientific demonstrations for teachers and students are typically held in a smaller 19th-century laboratory elsewhere in the building.

For those who are already familiar with the typical accoutrements of a chemistry teaching lab, the contents of the Laboratorio Chimico feel oddly familiar—a reminder that the basics of chemical instruction have not changed so much over the past 100 years. It’s unclear, however, what someone less well-versed in the history of chemistry would take away from the curators’ minimalist approach. A single bilingual interpretive panel introduces the exhibit, its contents, and the building’s history. A small video display discusses the renovations to the facility but does not include the history of the laboratory during its 150 years of use. For the rest, the visitor is left to his or her imagination. In a space as inspiring as this one, it may be all you need.