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Independence Seaport Museum » Online Exhibits » Philadelphia Commercial Museum

The Rise and Fall of the Philadelphia Commercial Museum
How a Forgotten Museum Forever Altered American Industry

(Continued from Page 1) By the 1920s, international trade was thriving in the United States, yet the decade would mark the beginning of the Commercial Museum's steady decline into irrelevancy, a slide punctuated by three major factors, beginning with the creep of the federal government into its domain. The US Department of Commerce, content in previous years to allow the museum's Bureau of Information to handle much of the information needs of the public, expanded dramatically under its leader at the time, Herbert Hoover. Heavily patterned from the methods used by the Commercial Museum's Bureau of Information, the International Trade Administration was developed, and took over many of the duties previously covered by the museum. While the library continued to collect material, it became a less important resource for business professionals both home and abroad. Secondly, public interest had begun to wane in the World's Fair exhibitions, particularly in the wake of the First World War, which had sapped technological progress of its perceived innocence, showing instead the brutality capable with advancement [7]. Finally, the Commercial Museum was dealt its worst blow in 1926 with the death of founder and director Dr. William Wilson. The museum was his dream, and nobody seemed able to follow in his footsteps with the same enthusiasm and drive he brought to the institution. These factors, combined with the lack of production that followed the arrival of the Great Depression, gradually pushed the museum into obscurity. Collections languished in cases, untouched for years, then decades, and the once-thriving museum became a dusty memory to many who had passed through its doors.

Civic Role: The Commercial Museum in the Late 20th Century

An attempt came in the late 1950s to revitalize the museum and its surrounding area, through the idea of a new public space. This space, dubbed the Civic Center, would incorporate the museum and already-existing Convention Hall and update it with hopes of drawing trade shows, national conferences, and sporting and entertainment events. The museum and its library, fallen into organizational and structural disrepair, was dramatically downsized, then restored and repackaged as part of the Philadelphia Civic Center and renamed the Civic Center Museum. Though some remnants of the international collections continued to be shown, the museum took on a decidedly more local focus, with a large replica of the city designed as a feature exhibit. This display, titled Philadelphia Panorama, was meant to be updated continuously to show the growth of the city. However, despite these efforts, the panorama and the museum itself would only enjoy fleeting relevancy. While the museum hosted a trio of successful temporary festival-style international showcases between 1958 and 1961, the permanent museum collections remained neglected and static [8]. The completion of the Spectrum in South Philadelphia diverted much of the business from the Civic Center and Convention Hall, a major source of foot traffic to the Civic Center Museum. Interest in the museum gradually tapered off, with the Civic Center Museum finally closing to the public in 1982. Portions of the collection were relocated to the Port of History Museum (current site of the Independence Seaport Museum), where the displays attracted as little as 15,000 visitors per year. Back at the main building, from 1982 to 1994, the Civic Center Museum functioned solely as an educational center, visited by schoolchildren from the surrounding states. The museum was extremely popular with these groups, as it was one of the few institutions that allowed and encouraged the young visitors to touch and play with many of the materials contained within the collections. However, the appreciation of schools was not enough to keep the museum going, and in 1994 the city determined that the property was to be razed, and all remaining collection materials stored or dispersed, with most going to Philadelphia-area museums [9].

Though the Philadelphia Commercial Museum ended its life solely as an educational center for children, classroom enrichment and student outreach were considered major focuses of the museum from its earliest years. It did not take long for local teachers to realize the boon of having such a museum accessible and free of charge, and they quickly came in droves to visit its halls. By the 1920s, the school crowds became so overwhelming the city appointed two full-time teachers to serve as class instructors for the museum, positions that existed until the last day of operations in 1994. Founder Dr. Wilson encouraged school use of the museum, believing that the early exposure of students to international trade would make for better entrepreneurs in later years. From the museum's earliest years Wilson conducted evening classes for Philadelphia teachers, instructing them in how to use the museum and its content to better teach their students. Wilson even accommodated rural districts, packaging extra samples of textiles and raw materials in custom-made cabinets for Pennsylvania schools that could not make it to Philadelphia [10].

In its 97 years of operation, the Commercial Museum was visited by generations of Philadelphia-area students. In its final year, the museum drew over 40,000 schoolchildren to its halls, proving that it had not been forgotten by all. The Independence Seaport Museum has collected a number of photographs of early school groups visiting the Commercial Museum. Follow the link below to visit the museum with these budding industrialists.

Commercial Museum history written by Katelyn A. Wolfrom, Spring 2010.

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