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Accepted paper:

A Philadelphia Story: Transatlantic Exchanges and the Philadelphia Commercial Museum


Caroline Cornish (Royal Holloway, University of London)

Paper short abstract:

Philadelphia Commercial Museum enjoyed international prominence in its heyday(1893-1926) but in 2020 awareness of it is low even in its native city. This paper considers museum objects exchanged between the Museum and Kew Gardens as vestiges of the Museum's transactions with European institutions.

Paper long abstract:

The Philadelphia Commercial Museum has been described as 'a commercial empire given material form' (Stephen Conn). Arising out of the 1893 World's Columbia Exhibition in Chicago, it was envisioned by its founder, William Wilson, as a national resource for the furtherance of international trade. As such it formed part of a movement towards commercial or trade museums which was evident in Europe from the 1840s, including Kew's Museum of Economic Botany (1847-1987) in London. Opening its doors to the public in 1897 the Philadelphia Commercial Museum enjoyed international prominence until Wilson's death in 1926. Thereafter it fell into decline - a number of factors can be identified - and its buildings were razed in 1994. Sources for the Museum are to be found in the photographic record, archives in Philadelphia and abroad, and in the residual objects, which can be located in collections on both sides of the Atlantic. This paper uses the case of objects exchanged between Kew and Philadelphia to interrogate the nature of transatlantic museum transactions in the late 19th and early 20th century and to examine the differing ways trade was both represented and promoted within and beyond the space of the museum.

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Transatlantic museum mobilities: convergences of objects, people and ideas