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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

Timeline of Major Events: Philadelphia Commercial Museum/Civic Center Museum

1893: Chicago's World Fair/Exposition is held.  William P. Wilson, professor of botany at the University of Pennsylvania, attends and theorizes on the need for a "permanent world's fair museum."  Purchases the majority of the fair exhibits and ships them back to Philadelphia.  The Philadelphia Commercial Museum opens in a temporary space.

1897: The Philadelphia Commercial Museum's official building opens, with President William McKinley in attendance as a speaker.

1899: The Philadelphia Commercial Museum is dedicated.  In this same year, it hosts the first-ever International Commercial Congress, a major convention with representatives of over forty governments present.

1900: The Philadelphia Commercial Museum begins sending cabinets to Pennsylvania schools outside of the Philadelphia area.  In the next decade, more than 2,500 of these cabinets are distributed to rural schools. Containing raw material samples, photographs, maps of international regions, and textile samples, they are seen as excellent classroom enrichment materials.

1906: William P. Wilson, founder of the Commercial Museum, takes a three-year leave of absence to put together an exhibit on the Philippines for the 1909 World's Exposition in Nancy, France. This massive exhibit featured 1,200 living Filipinos as a "living diorama"; inanimate portions of the exhibit were brought back to the Commercial Museum as a display.

1913: The US Bureau of Domestic and Foreign Commerce is founded as a branch of the Department of Commerce.  It will greatly expand its role during the next decade, taking on many of the responsibilities of the Commercial Museum's Department of Information.

1926: Philadelphia Commercial Museum founder Dr. William P. Wilson passes away.

1929: The crash of the stock market sends the country into the Great Depression, halting industrial growth nationwide.

1930: Convention Hall is dedicated.  Its opening drives conventions away from the halls of the Commercial Museum, causing further loss of revenue.

1952: The City of Philadelphia appoints a committee to renovate and repair the Philadelphia Commercial Museum, which is to become part of the new Philadelphia Civic Center planned for the area.  The museum is renamed the Philadelphia Civic Center Museum. $1,500,000 in funding is allotted for this "capital improvement program."

1958: The Civic Center and Civic Center Museum are opened to the public, following their construction and renovation. "Japan Today" exhibit opens at the museum, the first of three internationally focused exhibits to be hosted at the Civic Center Museum following its restoration.

1960: The "Festival of France" exhibit opens at the Civic Center Museum, featuring French fashion shows, jazz concerts, and cooking exhibitions, in addition to exhibit materials. The exhibit was put together with the French government, and drew nearly 200,000 during its ten week run.

1961: The "Festival of Italy" exhibition opens at the Civic Center Museum.  Done in collaboration with the Italian government, the exhibit featured working fountains, Roman ruins, merchant vendors, Italian fashion, and art, and drew over 250,000 during its two month run at the museum.

1982: The Civic Center Museum is closed to the public, citing poor visitor attendance.  The museum remains open to school groups, who continue to use it heavily.  Roughly 25% of the collection materials are transferred to the Port of History Museum (current site of the Independence Seaport Museum) for public viewing.

1986: The City of Philadelphia includes the Civic Center Museum as one of several suitable sites in its bid for the planned Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.  Cleveland eventually wins the bidding for the museum.

1994: The Civic Center Museum is completely closed; the collections on display at the Port of History Museum are also removed.

2001: The City of Philadelphia disperses the majority of the Commercial Museum's collections to universities and museums around the city, through the city Orphans' Court Division. Relevant materials are received by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Mutter Museum, the University of Pennsylvania, the Philadelphia Free Library, the University of Pennsylvania, and Independence Seaport Museum, among other institutions.

2004: The Civic Center complex is razed.

2010: The city's remaining holdings of Commercial Museum material are dissolved among city institutions.

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