June 7, 2021

Thinking Curatorial about Herzberg50

By: Dr. Madeleine Mant

Gerhard Herzberg was a celebrated Canadian scientist, who won the 1971 Nobel Prize for Chemistry “for his contributions to the knowledge of electronic structure and geometry of molecules, particularly free radicals” (Nobel, 2021). He excelled in the fields of chemistry, physics, and astronomy, served as the Principal Research Officer and Director of the Division of Physics at the National Research Council of Canada, and even has an asteroid named after him (Asteroid 3316 Herzberg). His story, however, is not limited to STEM. Indeed, Herzberg was a proponent of STEAM education long before the acronym, describing science itself as “a creative vocation, like art and music” (1973, p. 4) and championing “the cultural aspect of science” (1973, p. 10). Learning about Herzberg’s life and accomplishments demands an interdisciplinary lens. The September 2021 launch of Herzberg50 is an ideal opportunity to model curatorial thinking and how this type of interdisciplinary thinking can be operationalized in all classrooms. 

            Curatorial thinking is designed to help students make sense of information, create and communicate meaningful stories, and build a strong sense of social responsibility and awareness. Through introducing students to the tools of curatorial thinking we encourage them to consider their own role as a historical actor. Critically, students must determine their own ‘way in’ to topics and problems to allow for meaning making. How might one get to know Herzberg? His is an immigrant story, thus a consideration of 1930s German politics provides foundational context to the question: how did Herzberg end up in Saskatchewan? Herzberg’s story is also one of partnership: his wife, Luise Hedwig Oettinger, earned her PhD from the University of Frankfurt in 1933 and co-authored scientific papers with Gerhard. This detail invites inquiry into the opportunities available to women in science and education throughout the 20th century. This meaning-making is intimately personal – curatorial thinking encourages students to consider their own place in time and space and seek inspiration from their chosen connections.

Learning of Herzberg’s singing lessons, his sonorous bass-baritone voice, and his enjoyment of Verdi’s arias was my ‘way in’ to connecting personally to his legacy. As a graduate student, I spent my evenings and weekends rehearsing for musical theatre productions, finding that my thought processes were more clarified in my academic work when I could sublimate my other energies into performance and character. For others, their approach to Herzberg may be his 50 years of work at the National Research Council, or his escape from Nazi Germany in 1935. Perhaps his love of the Canadian prairies, his interest in photography, or how inspired he was by the stars will be the spark of connection and familiarity. 

Graphic explaining the tools for curatorial thinking: Selection, Archiving, Sense Making, Sharing

Curatorial thinking is organized around the S.A.S.S. framework: Selecting, Archiving, Sense-Making, and Sharing. The selection of evidence to answer questions will be influenced by the chosen ‘way in’ to exploring this important Canadian figure. Herzberg’s own prolific output, the work of his students, and his legacy at the National Research Council provides plenty of material from which to build. Sifting through the biographical details of the man himself, contextual understandings of the time and place in which he was born (1904, Hamburg, Germany), the cultures into which he moved and worked (1930s Canadian prairies, 1945 Chicago, 1948-1990s Ottawa), and his scientific discoveries (the presence of water in comets, the presence of hydrogen in planetary atmospheres, identifying dozens of free radicals) provides a welcome challenge to develop students’ scientific literacy skills. Through archiving students have the opportunity to question why certain documents were saved, why certain experiments were conducted, and how these forms of evidence might be organized. The critical thinking involved in sense-making reverberates throughout the curatorial thinking process; encouraging students to making inferences and begin to answer research questions in this step empowers them as independent thinkers. Finally, sharing, wherein students communicate, in a variety of media, a clear story. This step is of prime importance as students ensure they can support their claims and communicate them to varied stakeholders and audiences. Herzberg expressed his own concerns about “the wide chasm in understanding of scientific matters between scientists and non-scientists” (1970, p. 2). The importance of public education and outreach is heightened now as Canada undergoes its largest-ever mass vaccination campaign. Ensuring our students have the toolkit to break down complex topics into comprehensible narratives for varied audiences will help them develop as scholars and citizens. Welcoming people into conversations about science demystifies scientific processes and makes science accessible to all.

As the Herzberg50 and NobelCanadian projects develop we will have ample opportunities to learn the biographical details of these individuals’ fascinating lives and delve into their accomplishments. As an educator, I anticipate approaching the Herzberg story with a curatorial lens, considering this interdisciplinary figure with a de-siloed approach, and encouraging students to see the person behind the accomplishments, whose story just might have an element that resonates with their own.


Herzberg, Gerhard. (12 October 1973). “Science and Society.” Basterfield Lecture, University of Saskatchewan, Regina Campus. National Research Council of Canada Archives.

Herzberg, Gerhard. (30 May 1970). “Science and Culture.” University of Windsor Convocation Address. National Research Council of Canada Archives.

Nobel Media. (2021). The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1971. The Nobel Prize. https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/chemistry/1971/summary/