Commercial America

An exhibition that raises questions about storage and preservation, and the presumption that institutions store artifacts in perpetuity


Fields of Knowledge
  • Curatorial practice
  • Memory
  • Pedagogy
  • Public culture

Organizing Institutions


Contributing Institutions

City of Philadelphia, Office of Arts, Culture, and Creative Economy


Aaron Levy


Undergraduate students at the University of Pennsylvania

Process initiated


Opens to public



4017 Walnut St
Philadelphia, PA 19104


0% Formal - 100% Informal

Slought is pleased to announce Commercial America, a project that takes as its starting point the closure of the Commercial Museum. The Commercial Museum was built in 1899 in part to preserve materials from world's fairs, but since its closure in 1991 these rich holdings of cultural artifacts and ephemera have been dispersed to museums and other non-profit organizations in the Greater Philadelphia area. In presenting a selection of the remaining artifacts from April 30 through June 12, 2010, we seek to raise questions concerning storage and preservation, and in particular the presumption that collecting institutions store artifacts in perpetuity. The project also calls attention to the dispersion of these holdings to other institutions, in order to raise questions about how collections come into being and the manner in which cultural value is determined. It has been organized in conjunction with a 2010 curatorial seminar in the Department English at the University of Pennsylvania.

The Commercial Museum was founded by William Wilson, a botany professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Inspired by the monumental Columbian World's Fair in Chicago of 1893, it opened in 1899 and became the official repository for artifacts from world's fairs of that era. It displayed objects from around the world, and in so doing functioned both as a tourist destination as well as an educational resource about foreign commerce and industry. The Museum also distributed a monthly publication, Commercial America, from which this exhibition takes its name. It is particularly ironic that the Museum's history reflects late 19th century optimism and an embrace of commerce given the museum's subsequent dissolution and its inability to adapt to changing values and trade ideologies over the course of the 20th century.

Upon the museum's closing, the City of Philadelphia, according to the legal requirements set forth by the Orphan's Court, distributed the collection among universities and cultural organizations. Through this process institutions including the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the University of Pennsylvania's Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology selected artifacts for their collection; later, a wide variety of smaller organizations including Temple University's Anthropology Lab, the Philadelphia Free Library, and the Mutter Museum, among others, chose remaining items. The artifacts on display in the Slought galleries were chosen from those still remaining in storage nineteen years after the Museum's closure and include a broad selection of items from unidentified time periods including feathered headresses, Polynesian oars and spears, baskets, dioramas, figurines, and jars of dry food. Shortly thereafter, on February 17, 2010, all unclaimed items were discarded by the city. To reinforce the displacements of these objects from the collection of which they were once a part, and the accompanying loss of history and provenance this entails, the objects on display at Slought Foundation are shown without captions, in acknowledgement of their anonymous status.

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The theoretical framework for this project builds upon Thomas Keenan's essay "The End(s) of the Museum," in which he claims that "Museums are built on loss and its recollection. There is no museum," he argues, "without the threat of erasure or incompletion, no museum not shadowed by the imagination of the impending destruction of what it therefore seeks to stabilize and maintain." Here museums are revealed as sites of perpetual tension, where the struggle to preserve and protect against the passage of time confronts the need to acknowledge the inevitability of change and finitude.

In 1967, Robert Smithson referred to this process as entropy, in speaking of the museum as a place of corrosion where things "flatten and fade." The project also responds to the work of Michel Foucault, which challenges us to privilege moments of rupture in order to better understand our past. The closing of an institution like the Commercial Museum, which was explicitly created to preserve the past by documenting its cultural representations, represents one such instance of discontinuity.

The project examines not only questions about the history of collections and the identity of museums today, but also questions about cultural ownership. Accordingly, we have invited institutions that have accepted objects from the original collection of the Commercial Museum to place one of these items on display. In so doing, we map the distribution of the original collection through diverse organizations in the city of Philadelphia.

Moreover, we have invited members of the community to loan individual works from the collection on display. We hope in so doing these artifacts find new life not in storage but rather in active circulation. Artifacts will be made available for loan to private residencies, sites of commerce, and educational institutions.

To apply, download a loan application form, including terms and conditions:

Loan Form