A group of volunteers from the RSC Midlands Local Section organised activities to commemorate Joseph Priestley and the discovery of oxygen.
By Dr Helen Cooke and Dr Glynn Skerratt
Nantwich is a market town in south Cheshire, famous for its Tudor buildings, salt and cheese. Even amongst the town’s residents, it isn’t widely known that Joseph Priestley, polymath and discoverer of oxygen, was a minister and teacher there from 1758–61, before his big discovery. This year, the town’s small local-history museum’s summer exhibition “From Nantwich to oxygen: Joseph Priestley’s journey of discovery” raised Priestley’s profile and, at the same time, celebrated the periodic table’s 150th anniversary.
During his time in Nantwich, while still a young man, Priestley was laying the foundations for his future scientific work and achievements. At his school he purchased some "philosophical instruments" (which today we’d call scientific apparatus), such as a small air pump and an electrical machine. He used these for teaching his older students and entertaining their parents and friends with his experiments. It has been suggested that Priestley’s scientific teachings constitute the first ever school science lessons.
For the exhibition, oxygen served as the connection between Nantwich and the periodic table. Attractive information panels smoothly transitioned museum visitors from Priestley’s life and achievements before, during and after Nantwich to his oxygen discovery and from there to its place in the periodic table. Amongst the exhibits were Priestley’s spectacles, some of his written works and an embroidered periodic table (handmade by the museum's craft group).
As well as games and quizzes, for children there was an element hunt around the museum developed by Heidi Dobbs, RSC Midlands education coordinator, which enabled them to learn about elements present in the museum’s historical exhibits. A child’s entry in the museum’s visitor’s book confirmed that she "really enjoyed the elements exhibition and trail". Heidi, supported by a team of volunteers from the RSC’s North Staffordshire Local Section, also led a drop-in family workshop, "Priestley's Element", featuring hands-on experiments suitable for all ages. Over 70 thoroughly engaged children and adults learned about carbon dioxide, properties of metals, spectroscopy and more.
A celebratory reception was held with entertainment ranging from flute music (Priestley learnt to play the flute while in Nantwich) to live chemistry! The keynote speaker was Professor Mark Ormerod, Deputy Vice Chancellor and Provost at Keele University. A demonstration by Dr Katherine Haxton (also of Keele) featured the decomposition of hydrogen peroxide, producing "elephant's toothpaste". Community events included a Periodic Table themed coffee morning and "Joseph Priestley's Footsteps" walking tours around Nantwich.
A sold-out programme of talks, "Joseph Priestley in his element", featured Priestley’s time in Nantwich (Helen Cooke), his alliance with Josiah Wedgwood and Thomas Bentley (Gaye Blake-Roberts), his membership of the Lunar Society (Cameron Arthur), and exciting demonstrations bringing Priestley’s work to life (Fabio Parmeggiani), about which an attendee commented "If only my school chemistry lessons had been half as entertaining!" Others said "Thank you for an excellent afternoon of talks... I came for the history but I really enjoyed the science too!" and "Warm congratulations for putting together such a great event. It was excellent in every way."
The exhibition’s curator, Nantwich Museum and RSC volunteer Dr Helen Cooke, believes that "key to the exhibition’s success was that we always bore in mind the interests of Nantwich Museum’s visitor community and ensured that local history, as well as science, was a theme. The range of activities for all age groups engaged visitors too. Also, the partnership with the RSC enabled the Museum to reach a broader audience, which was really helpful". A museum member commented: "At last we’ve had a proper tribute to Joseph Priestley in Nantwich".
As the exhibition has now closed, most of the information panels have been made available online via the museum’s website.
Financial support was gratefully received from the RSC via the Chemical Information and Computer Applications Group, the North Staffordshire Local Section and an IYPT grant. The exhibition was also supported by Keele University, University of Manchester, RSC Historical Chemistry and Environmental Chemistry Interest Groups, RSC Library, Priestley House Museum (Pennsylvania, USA), Harris Manchester College Oxford, Warrington Archives and Wedgwood Museum Stoke-on-Trent.