Personal Collector Case Study
"I wanted a periodic table display as much about art as science."
Gary McConnell's periodic table display is unusual for several reasons. First, it's an ultra-minimalist display made from acrylic panels that are almost invisible at first glance. Secondly, it contains some of the largest samples that RGB Research has yet created. And thirdly, it's in his living room. While plenty of people have a fascination for the elements - and many collect samples - not many people have a complete periodic table display in their own home.
"I do collect things. I've got that mentality," says Dr McConnell, who works at Imperial College, London. "I looked online for element samples because one of my sons wanted something at the time. I bought a bunch of samples from RGB Research. I started building a collection and then I thought 'well, why don't I just go all the way?'. They simply became part of the periodic table display in due course."
Dr McConnell's interest in scientific samples comes from his father, a professor of applied physics. As a child he collected mineral samples and would often visit the laboratory and explore his father's work environment with fascination. He says: "I saw that interest awakening in my son and I thought I would help to encourage it."
Having decided to get a periodic table display for his living room, Dr McConnell's choices were partly defined by the room itself. "It's a large room, the living room, but there's almost no spare wall space," says Dr McConnell. "There was really only one space to put it. In fact, that probably dictated that it would be slightly smaller than I might otherwise have preferred."
An abstract display
Dr McConnell wanted his display to be more abstract than the typical displays RGB had produced to that point. The transparent acrylic shelves give a sense of the element samples floating in air and, since the elements aren't labelled, there is an air of mystery about the presentation. The photo above shows an early prototype that RGB Research made for Dr McConnell to consider.
"The samples are simply arranged in the periodic table shape, but beyond that you have no clue as to what each thing is," says Dr McConnell. "It's a puzzle for people to figure out which things are where. If you label everything, then people tend to move on because they think they know what something is, so they barely even look. When it's abstract they really have to focus and look for themselves. It catches people's attention and really engages their interest, paradoxically."
The thickness of the partitions means that, though transparent, they aren't invisible. The specialist museum-grade acrylic on the front of the display, however, is different. Dr McConnell says: "It's a really an incredible optical illusion, because no one can see it. People act like birds flying into windows. They keep putting their hand out to get one of the cylinders but they can't pick it up."
The display, says Dr McConnell is "as much artistic as educational" and its abstract nature only heightens the extent to which it works as an art piece. He says: "The people who have been most drawn to it have little inherent interest in science. They would never ask me about chemistry in a normal conversation, but they are precisely the ones who really gravitate towards it. I've been delighted by that."
Dr McConnell believes that the real strength of the display is that it "brings science to life in an artistic way". He adds: "If an average lay-person, or even a scientifically trained person, were to do this, it would come across far more drily than what these guys do. I would not be willing simply to stick globs of metal on my wall. I view it as a way of putting something there that matters a lot to me, but that is very definitely also an art piece."
A source of wonder
"People just say 'oh wow'", when they see the display, says Dr McConnell. He adds: "Then they say that they hated chemistry at school. After a moment they'll tell you that they didn't realise the elements were so beautiful."
Children love to handle the samples, Dr McConnell says, and are especially amazed by the different densities of the elements. "You pick up a tiny little sample of super-dense iridium," he says, "and it's like it's going through the palm of your hand. You can't get an experience like that just from looking at a photograph."
The display is a constant reminder of the different ways to think about the elements. Described by RGB co-founder Theo Gray as "everything you can drop on your foot", the elements can be explored in a variety of ways. "Another avenue is to think about them, not necessarily as minerals, but as the compounds they make," he explains. "There is a vast array of colours that suddenly appear as you start moving towards the centre of the table. Then you go back over to the right and everything is white again. With a few exceptions, it's white on the left and then unbelievably colourful in the middle, and then white on the right as well."
Dr McConnell sees his display as something that will continue to evolve. He has already added some new samples and "upgraded" others as RGB devises new techniques for creating beautiful element samples. "We upgraded iodine," he says, "and now it's this glass balloon with iodine crystals subliming inside. It's a stunning thing. My project at the moment is to gradually enhance the collection by substituting those newer metal crystal samples for the old ones I've got."
Having the display in the living room provides a constant source of wonder, says Dr McConnell. What began as something to nurture his sons' interest in science has grown into a permanent window onto nature itself. Dr McConnell says: "I still find it astonishing that you can break down every material substance into just those few elements. It's an astonishing truth of nature."