Radioactivity, rocket-nozzles and lethal cosmetics in the Ulster Museum's Elements

By Culture24 Reporter | 10 March 2014

Exhibition preview: Elements: From Actinium to Zirconium, Ulster Museum, Belfast, until March 27 2016

A photo of an ancient bottle
A Bismuth pills bottle. Bismuth's neighbours on the Periodic Table are poisonous lead, mercury and polonium, yet its compounds are used in cosmetics and indigestion remedies without any ill effects© Courtesy National Museums Northern Ireland
With an exhibit list bottling brilliantly sparkly synthetic gemstones of zirconium oxide, the rarest non-radioactive element on Earth, a plate made from a rocket-nozzle and metal antimony or mercury – once used in cosmetics, resulting in the demise of Maria, Countess of Coventry during the 18th century – the Ulster Museum’s compound show should be a spectacular one.

Ninety natural elements will hang in the air of the cabinets. It was partly sparked by a popular scientist admired by Dr Mike Simms, the museum’s Curator of Palaeontology, and has been “at least” two years in the making.

“The exhibition was inspired, really, by a book I came across by a chap called Theodore Gray, who’s an element collector,” says Simms.

“It’s a beautiful summary of what the elements look like, what they’re used for and where they’re found and where they’re created.

“I just thought we could do that in the museum. And then there’s the hard reality of ‘but how?’, and that’s been the difficult bit.”

A photo of two top hats on stands
The term mad hatter originated because of how the mercury - used to make the felt for top hats - affected the mental health of hat makers© Courtesy National Museums Northern Ireland
The process, he reflects, has been one of “just drawing together the objects”, both inside and beyond the national collection.

“When people come to the exhibition they’ll find a lot of familiar objects,” he says.

“It’s gonna be a sort of voyage of discovery.

“It looks at pretty much all the sorts of elements in the universe – everything around you, everything that you can see and a lot of things that you can’t see.

“So it encompasses all aspects of the museum – arts, science, history, technology.”

Some are colourful, with many carrying a sting in the tail: for centuries, cadmium pigments have been used in the making of brilliant red, yellow and orange pigments, but its poisonous heavy metal has had the painful side effect of liver, kidney damage and even death for its artists.

All the extensive planning will be put to fine educational use in an accompanying programme. Backed by the Friends of the Ulster Museum, events will target Key Stage 2 and Key Stage 3 learners and new science enthusiasts, playfully converting chemistry into an unintimidating concept.


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