Commercial America

The Slought Foundation will let you borrow a piece a history.

By Peter Crimmins
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Apr. 27, 2010

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Junk in your trunk: The Slought Foundation will let you borrow leftover exhibits from Philly's old Commercial Museum.

Photo by PW Staff

What happens when nobody gives a crap anymore? What happens when the leftovers of our collective culture wind up in the dustbin of history—or, in this case, heaped willy-nilly on shelving in a nondescript Water Department building on Girard Avenue?

That was the fate of objects once in glass cases at the Commercial Museum, which gathered items featured in worlds fairs. Such fairs were Very Big Deals in the late 19th century, the only place most people could witness first-hand things like bananas, saris and colonial certitude.

The Commercial Museum, built in 1899 near the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, was a cross between Wharton School and Pier 1 Imports, designed to familiarize American businessmen with foreign customs so they could better establish commercial relationships in other countries. Chinese baskets, dioramas of South America native tribes and African masks were paired with volumes full of numbers concerning markets and trade values.

However, as the world evolved, the museum became obsolete. (Due mostly to the U.S. Department of Commerce under Herbert Hoover in the 1920s, and later when Al Gore invented the Internet.) In 1991, its building was demolished so Penn could build a new hospital wing.

But wherefore the stuff of yesteryear?

Remember that last shot of Raiders of the Lost Ark, pushing the boxed-up Ark into an enormous, anonymous federal storage facility? That’s the Water Department storage building on Girard Avenue. Inside is a hand-carved Polynesian oar, a feathered spear, a cotton comb, glass jars filled with grain, a headdress made from Emu feathers. For 19 years they were lost in a cardboard-box limbo. Worse: Many objects lost their own accompanying paperwork so nobody knows where they came from, who made them and what exactly they are.

The city invited any museum in the area to look over those international tsotchkes and take what they wanted: If you can haul it you can have it. But objects without papers are useless to most museums because if curators can’t identify it, they can’t display it.

Tax-paying citizens trust museums to determine the cultural relevance of certain objects, and then preserve them. But when they don’t matter anymore, museums need to break up with them, like former lovers. And that is an ugly business.

Richard Brautigan more or less described what happened to these items next when he wrote, “It’s so nice to wake up in the morning, all alone, and not have to tell someone you love them, when you don’t love them anymore.” Society can dump its cultural objects gently, or roughly, but it will dump them.

Cue the Slought Foundation, which is not like most museums. The curators saw the flotsam and jetsam of history—adrift in the Water Department building—and saw possibility. The Slought collected these orphaned artifacts to ask the question, what is society’s obligation as steward of its own history and culture?

For example, take a colorful fan made out of bird feathers from Brazil. Not just feathers—but whole taxidermied birds with their plumage still intact and assembled into a fan. Why was this created? By whom? The Slought Foundation doesn’t have provenance, just the physical item divorced from its past. But you can give it a future.

Part of the exhibit is a loaning library system. People can check out these bizarre and misfit objects and bring them home for a finite time. Those Polynesian spears could look great over your hallway mirror. In a kind of populist curatorial move, the Slought Foundation transfers cultural stewardship from museum leaders to Everyman.

Anyone who can prove themselves responsible enough for the care and maintenance of a dead-bird fan can take it home, show it off to friends, and make up exotic and fanciful stories about how you fought off a jungle tiger and befriended an Amazonian tribe with just your iPod and a few barrettes. Your incredulous friends will have to believe you because there’s no counter-argument: the object can’t speak for itself. Since their stories are lost, feel free to create new ones.

“Commercial America”

Reception: Fri., April 30, 6:30pm

Through June 12

Slought Foundation

4017 Walnut St

215.701.4627

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