Periodic table celebrations: filming and photographing the collection
By Dr Rupert Cole, Associate Curator of Chemistry at the Science Museum
The International Year of the Periodic Table has generated a lot of interest from our press team and external media in the Science Museum Group’s chemistry collections – great news for their curator.
This interest has meant that some of the objects I look after have had the fortune of getting some new studio shots or being the subject in a film.
One of the biggest of these projects was the photography of a collection of 69 glass bottles and tubes containing chemical elements, which were bequeathed to the South Kensington Museum (the Science Museum’s predecessor) in 1892 by Napoleon’s nephew, Prince Louis Lucien Bonaparte.
"Glassware is always quite tricky and as these items have domed lids this adds another layer of complexity. Whilst most of the jars are very similar in size, their contents vary in volume and colour so I had to find a lighting set-up that would suit the group as a whole".
The time spent in meticulous planning and shooting paid off. The resulting images are just stunning, each element looking like it is almost floating in a sea of crystal clear, jet-black water.
Filming de Chancourtois' periodic table
Another object to bathe in the IYPT limelight is a model of the earliest periodic system, ‘the telluric screw’, conceived by French geologist Alexandre-Émile de Chancourtois in 1862 – seven years prior to Mendeleev’s first table.
We decided to make a film about the model.
The model was made in the Science Museum’s workshops in 1925 for the first museum display of the periodic table ahead of a new chemistry gallery opening the following year. It may be the earliest physical realisation of de Chancourtois three-dimensional periodic spiral.
Filming objects in the stores presents similar challenges to photography, one of which is ensuring UV or UV-filtered lighting is used to prevent light-sensitive objects being damaged, which I was interested to learn from our filmmaker Nathaniel Skeels.
But perhaps the key challenge in making these films is to make a static object come to life (while also observing good handling and conservation practice). We were helped a little by the model, which has a dynamic feature.
Turning a dial on the side rotates a column containing the elements along a spiral line, ordered by increasing atomic weight. In doing so, you can see vertically elements falling into some of the chemical groups familiar today – such as potassium, of the alkali metals.
As we begin to pack 300,000 items ready to move them to a new home at the National Collections Centre in Wiltshire, photography and films become increasingly important to engage audiences with our objects and their fascinating stories.