The Ordinary, the Extraordinary and the Unknown: The Power of Objects



of an Exhibit

by Mickey Maley

Published on December 29, 2012

  • Museum: The Philadelphia History Museum

  • Visit Date: December, 2012

  • Description:

    I have lived most of my life in Philadelphia. I consider myself fairly savvy when it comes to the history and stories of Philadelphia, but not an expert. I love Philadelphia, and love finding out new things about the city and its people. It is because of that I went to see a new exhibit at the recently renovated Philadelphia History Museum.

    The Philadelphia History Museum at Atwater-Kent opened the exhibit “The Ordinary, the Extraordinary and the Unknown: The Power of Objects” in 2012. The exhibit features over 100 objects relating to the history of Philadelphia from the museum’s collection. The exhibit aims to show how we can connect to objects, and how that gives them power and meaning.

    The first four objects set the tone. They are Joe Frazier’s boxing gloves, a “firing” glass used by Benjamin Franklin, and a pair of glasses and a Bible owned by Quaker leader Rebecca Jones. They are displayed in three four sided cases with labels on each side. The labels define the object, tell the history of the object, detail its connection to Philadelphia history, and list other topics the museum might be able to tell a story about using that object. For example, Joe Frazier, a native Philadelphian, used the boxing gloves in a championship bout, but they could also be used to present information about concussions in athletics.

    The introductory objects were in a hallway space between the two main rooms of the exhibit space. The space for the exhibit was small, but did not feel crowded. The walls were bright, and the environment comfortable. The objects were numbered and implied an ordered way to move through the exhibit, but it was not forced. The numbering of the objects was the same on iPads spread throughout the exhibit. The digital presentation was a nice complement to the exhibit. The iPads contained all of the objects in the exhibit and allowed for the visitor to learn more stories about the objects. The setup for the iPads and the information panels was at an accessible height, and the media on the iPads were simultaneously displayed on flat screen televisions above. This allowed groups to learn together about the objects without having to physically crowd around the smaller iPad screen.

    The brilliant part of this exhibit is how the objects were arranged. The objects were arranged by what story they were being used to tell and introduced by a topic sentence. One display featured Mike Schmidt’s batting helmet alongside a NAACP rally hat, and encouraged discussion by asking what hats we wear at work. Each of us would have different connections to these hats, and interpretation of the question was left open: literally (what hats do you wear?) or figuratively.

    This exhibit did not paint a cheery picture with every object. There was a commemorative silver bowl on display. It was a gift to George Baer who was President of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad companies. During the Anthracite Coal Strike of 1902, Baer spoke on behalf of the mine owners and the bowl was a gift for his work. The strike itself saw numerous counts of violence against immigrant workers during its run from May until October of 1902 before federal intervention. The exhibit introduced these topics and gave an opportunity for visitors to converse by displaying open-ended questions on the panels.

    I had one criticism for the exhibit. It was difficult for me to locate the numbers for the objects with their listing on their respective panels. The panels were one solid piece each, and the objects spread out across a wall, or display platform. It wasn’t impossible to locate, but it was inconvenient to go to a panel read a description, walk a few feet to the object to take a close look, and then go back if you wanted to re-read the description. When I attended, I mostly had the exhibit to myself, but if there were other people it might be uncomfortable to bounce back and forth.

    I visited the exhibit after hearing a glowing recommendation from a friend. All she could remember of the objects was Bobby Clarke’s hockey stick and the previously mentioned glass. She said the rest of the exhibit was excellent, even if she couldn’t remember specifics. I could not agree more, and I could not remember all of the specifics either. I enjoyed my time getting lost in the stories and studying the objects. I spent a few minutes looking at every nick in the wood of the desk used by President George Washington during his time in Philadelphia, and was struck at the quality of its preservation. I read stories about two Mummers props as examples of their modern resourcefulness due to rising cost of materials for the New Years Day parades. In the past, the Mummers used umbrellas with more than one canopy to them, and their shoes were handcrafted and comically larger. Today, they decorate premade umbrellas and spray paint sneakers.

    There are many more wonderful stories, and I loved learning them. I want to go back and revisit the ones I cannot fully remember. I have told people to go visit the exhibit. Just like my friend, I told them it was excellent even if I cannot remember all of the details.

Latest Comments (1)

Numbers and labels

by Kathleen Mclean - December 30, 2012

Thanks for the review, Mickey. This technique of numbering the objects and placing their labels at a distance seems to be one of those gnarly museum problems that just won’t go away. I remember reading a review back in the 1970s that had a similar critique. Will the field ever learn, I wonder?

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