Small Display Case Study
"I wouldn't have just stuck a bunch of globs of metal to my wall."
Gary McConnell's periodic table display is unusual for a couple of reasons. First, it's an ultra-minimalist display made from acrylic panels that are almost invisible at first glance. And second, 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 display in their living room.
"I do collect things. I've got that mentality," says Mr McConnell, who works at Imperial College, London. "I looked online for element samples because my son wanted something at the time. I bought a bunch of samples from RGB. I started building those up and then I thought 'well, why don't I just go the whole way?'. They just became part of the display eventually."
Mr McConnell's interest in scientific samples comes from his father, who was 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 encourage it."
Having decided to get an elements display for the living room, Mr McConnell's choices were partly defined by the room itself. "It's a very big room, the living room, but there's almost no spare wall space," says Mr McConnell. "There was really only one space to put it. In fact, that probably dictated that it would be slightly smaller than I might have liked."
An abstract display
Mr 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 display.
"They are just sorted in the periodic table shape but beyond that you have no real clue as to what each thing is," says Mr McConnell. "It's like a puzzle for people to figure out where things are. If you have everything labelled then people tend to walk away faster because they think they know what something is so they barely even look. When it's abstract they really have to focus. It catches people's attention more, strangely enough."
The thickness of the partitions means that, though transparent, they aren't invisible. The acrylic on the front of the display, however, is different. Mr McConnell says: "It's a really funny optical illusion because no one can see it. People are like flies going into windows. They keep putting their hand out to get one of the cylinders and they can't touch it."
The display, says Mr 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 got absolutely no interest in science in general. They would never ask me about science in a normal conversation but they are the ones who really gravitate towards it. I've been really surprised by that."
Mr McConnell believes that the 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 wouldn't have just stuck a bunch of globs of metal on my wall. I view it as a way of putting something there that matters to me a lot but it very definitely looks like an artistic display."
A source of wonder
"People just say 'oh wow'", when they see the display, says Mr McConnell. He adds: "Then they say that they hated it 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, Mr McConnell says, and are especially amazed by the different densities of the elements. "You pick up a tiny little sample of 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 seeing them."
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. Mr McConnell says he would like to get a hand-held spectroscope and scan each element to examine the differences in the readings.
"The other avenue is to think about them, not necessarily as minerals, but as salts, the compounds the 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."
Mr McConnell sees his display as something that will continue to change and 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 all around the side of it. It's a stunning thing. My project at the moment is to gradually enhance the collection by substituting those newer crystal displays for the old ones I've got."
Having the display in the living room provides a constant source of wonder, says Mr McConnell. What began as something to nurture his son's interest in science has grown into a permanent window onto nature itself. Mr McConnell says: "I still find it astonishing that you can break down every material substance into just those few elements. It's an astonishing fact of nature."