Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Philadelphia Commercial Museum Collection

What happens when a museum decides to deaccession some objects, removing them from the collection? Usually the items are sold to other institutions, where the pieces are a better match for the collection and institutional mandate, or to private individuals. But what about materials that fetch no buyers?

In the case of the Philadelphia Commercial Museum, they just gave everything away.

The Philadelphia Commercial Museum was built in 1899 by a University of Pennsylvania botany professor named William Wilson. Wilson was inspired by the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago and hoped to create a type of permanent world's fair in the Commercial Museum. With this mandate the museum became the official repository for objects associated with the turn of the century world's fairs. It was a tourist destination and an educational resource for business students.

By the 1920's the US Department of Commerce was flourishing and formal business schools attached to universities had evolved. People also stopped caring about world's fairs (really, they're still happening and nobody cares). So the museum became pretty much irrelevant. The museum eventually closed and the objects of value were taken by local institutions and universities. The remained of the collection was stored by the City of Philadelphia in a warehouse. Until now, when the City decided to give them all away.

People at the Centre made a Thursday morning appointment: we were hoping to find paper, books, photos... things to experiment with, and possibly some cool random stuff as well. When we arrived, there were boxes and tissue paper all over, objects crushed and total chaos. There were thousands of baskets and other ethnographic things. I don't like ethnographic things very much.

Happily, we did find a box of interesting papers. An accompanying label identified it as joss paper or ghost money, faux paper money intended to be burnt for one's ancestors.

I think the dark irregular square shape in the center is silver leaf, but I don't have an XRF to back up this claim. Silver leaf oxidizes over time, turning black. Silver and gold leaf are both common to these types of papers.

This was a much larger sheet of paper, very brightly colored.

Detail of the pattern.

In the category of cool random things, everyone in the group found a few interesting things to keep for themselves (Val took a functional model of a stove). I picked up a strange wooden knife-thing that I intend to turn into a conservation tool. I also got two little pine boxes, probably shipping crates. I have no idea what they say: I'm thinking it is Chinese. Anyway, they are covered in filth (from old coal-fired furnaces and whatnot).

Both have little stickers on the back indicating that they passed through US Customs and were intended for the Panama Pacific International Exposition of 1915.


Mum said...

Wow, this looks like fun! You got some beautiful paper! And the price was right! I think I would have enjoyed going through the leftovers too. You know how I love a good flea market.

DPLK said...

Indeed they are Chinese characters, but the box is probably Japanese in origin as Michael and I can't make much sense out of it. Basically the left hand column says "product from...[some place]" "product made by...[some guy]" and the rest of it we're kinda *shrugshrug* about what it means. The big central black characters say "5 [something]" and the red characters say "Natural [something]." Michael can read all the characters in Chinese but it makes no sense. Japanese people use Chinese (or as they call it, "han" characters, although they say them sometimes very differently and sometimes have different meanings) a lot, and they just have to learn in school what words they write as characters and what they write as hiragana (phonetic characters).

Jessica said...

Thanks for the translation! I was guessing that it probably said something along those lines. From what I know of the museum's collection, it makes perfect sense that it would be labeled "product from..." and "product made by..."

Intriguing that it is probably Japanese in origin - the big museum box it was in was labeled "China" - but everything was such a mess when we visited, I would have been surprised to see African stuff in a box labeled "China".

And I kind of like that it makes no sense.

DPLK said...

Oh yes, another giveaway that it's Japanese is that the "exporter's" name has four characters (the four characters in a group on the bottom lefthand corner). Most Japanese names have 3-5 characters while Chinese names are 2-3.