Downstream is an exhibit on the ambitious topic of water quality, focusing on water analysis, treatment, and management over the past 250 years, opened on the 50th anniversary of the United States’ Clean Water Act. The exhibit offers a series of case studies involving Philadelphia’s water supply. The exhibit opens and closes with the statement “We all live downstream” referring both to the history of water pollution and protection in the Delaware River basin and to the shared challenges of protecting waters world-wide.
By connecting the history of technology and science in the form of water analysis and treatment to a geographically specific story about local environmental concerns from the late 1700s to the present, the exhibit engages audiences that may have little knowledge of water issues or the science and technology brought to bear on identifying and solving water problems.
Downstream effectively displays and interprets relevant collection of objects – both from SHI’s own collection and from other sources – and digital archival resources through a temporary physical exhibit and an online exhibit. Together, these elements encourage learning about how water and its issues have been understood, and they give visitors useful knowledge of important issues that affect them every day.
The gallery exhibition compellingly displays a number of important artifacts in the history of water study and treatment, pairing them usefully with traditional text panel interpretation that is accessible in an open indoor gallery space. The exhibit and its narratives encourage both understanding and imagination by connecting the physical things of science and technology with concise historical interpretation that includes both words and images.
Online, Downstream presents an impressively broad selection of water-related archival resources for reading, watching, and listening. Taken as a whole, these resources emphasize the wide impact of water issues on the whole population and offer a variety of vignettes supporting the exhibit’s technology-science-history approach.
Visitor engagement with Downstream is accomplished by the exhibition’s multifaceted, exploratory approach. With its use of both physical and online presentation, the exhibition facilitates learning for readers, watchers, listeners, and those encountering artifacts firsthand. Adding hands-on interactive components, Downstream connects with all types of learners in ways that highlight science and technology topics usefully for a non-expert audience.
The physical exhibition’s narrative arc works like a mystery where visitors chronologically follow the advent of a serious problem, learn the roles of science and technology in identifying its “culprit,” and gain a solid appreciation of the benefits of solving and preventing water issues. Downstream’s online component bolsters these themes with examples of other water problems and water-related events and technologies.
Referees and Dibner committee were impressed by the way in which the Downstream exhibition intersects histories of technology, science and environment, effectively combining specific scientific technologies to the local context and concerns. It engages visitors to think about the history and future of waters from stinking rivers of the past to the microplastics problem of today. A range of historical artifacts from scientific instruments to cultural objects such as public films, fishing licenses, and advertising ephemera are brought together to tell a cohesive story about how water has been understood.