Things Fall Apart: An Interview with Exhibition Curator Elisabeth Berry Drago

Exploring the science behind decay through the Institute’s new exhibition and Old City walking tour.

Things Fall Apart explores the science behind decay. From paintings, to plastic toys, to the door of a house that once belonged to the assistant secretary to the Treasury under Alexander Hamilton, this exhibition focuses on how objects from the Philadelphia area break down over time and the often painstaking processes involved in preservation and restoration. This exhibition and a corresponding walking tour through Old City ask visitors to consider the life and afterlife of historical objects from the perspective of conservators. Distillations spoke with exhibition curator Elisabeth Berry Drago about what we can expect to see from this exhibition, which opens to the public on June 17.

Q: How did Things Fall Apart come about? What was the reason you chose to explore this theme?               

A: This exhibition emerged naturally for CHF’s museum team since it’s a reality we deal with in terms of collections and exhibitions. We always have to be mindful of environmental hazards like UV light, humidity, pests, and so forth because we’re trying to showcase and care for objects over time. The reality is, everything is falling apart—if not visibly, then on a molecular level. The science behind decay is quite interesting and sometimes surprising. But there’s also a cultural dimension: we make art, literature, and music about decay. We’re fascinated by it. So we wanted an exhibition that would bridge the artistic and scientific responses to decay and preservation.

Q: What will visitors to Things Fall Apart see? What should they take away from the experience?

A: They’ll see some unusual objects, things that wouldn’t necessarily be the focus of a traditional museum experience—plastic toys that are losing their plasticizers and becoming tacky and gummy; housewares that have broken and been repaired, as well as repair tools; damaged paintings that have been carefully restored after tragedy. Rusting metal and peeling paint. We actually want people to look at these things, study the surfaces, and appreciate the difficulty in caring for things, and to prompt them to think about how to preserve and protect their own treasured belongings. Visitors will also see analytical instruments that have been used to help assess materials and determine conservation treatment. There’s a behind-the-scenes feel.

We hope people will feel inspired, that they’ll see decay from a new perspective. Decay and renewal always happen in cycles. Sometimes the study of decay leads us to new breakthroughs or just to a new appreciation of what we have in front of us. We also hope people will take the opportunity to think critically about those environmental factors—UV light, humidity, pests, and so on—and how they relate to preserving their own belongings. It’s never too late to put your precious family photographs into an acid-free box!

Q: What are some of the objects in the exhibition? Are they from CHF’s collection?

A: This show draws from the CHF collections and from some key lenders. There’s a wide range of objects because of course everything falls apart. So there’s everything from 19th-century paintings, to microscopes and colorimeters, to a Wedgwood potpourri vase, to contemporary works of art by Philadelphia-area artists meditating on the themes of decay, loss, and transformation.

One of the highlights sourced from the CHF collections is our section on plastics because plastics are such a conservation puzzle. There are so many different types of plastic, and conserving them begins with identifying them. We’ve paired one of our analytical instruments—a Fourier transform infrared spectrophotometer—with some cool vintage plastic objects, including a Lexan baby bottle, to talk about the connections between analyzing and treating modern plastics in collections.

One criterion for borrowing objects for this show was that we were looking for things from the Philadelphia region—especially from our neighborhood. So one of our loans is a door from a historic house that’s part of the National Park Service collections at Independence National Historical Park. The door is from 413 Locust Street, a house built around 1804 by Philadelphia carpenter Peter L. Berry. This was home to famous Revolutionary War−era figures, including Tench Coxe, who was assistant secretary of the Treasury under Alexander Hamilton. The door had been left outside for a long time, exposed to the elements, rain, sun. It’s got a great, peeling surface. It’s a totally mundane object, an everyday object, but it carries a great history of the neighborhood on that surface!

Q: Can you discuss the role of contemporary art in this exhibition?

A: From the beginning we knew we wanted to include contemporary art that dealt with decay and transformation because decay and preservation have such a big place in cultural expression. Amidst the more literal interpretations of decaying objects and analytical instruments, we wanted a space for a more poetic, artistic interpretation. So we invited Philadelphia-area artists to submit works that spoke to those themes, and we were thrilled by the response—over 60 entries, all excellent. We had a hard time choosing the finalists: Aubrie Costello, Dominique Ellis, Michelle Marcuse, and José Ortiz-Pagán.

We specifically invited Philadelphia-area artists because we wanted to generate a show that had local resonance. We were seeking to place contemporary art that explores themes of decay and transformation into dialogue with the local artifacts we’d selected to tell decay and preservation stories.

We have also developed a walking tour, which will be free to download, that lets visitors investigate our Old City neighborhood and consider what happens when a city decays, is rebuilt, is reimagined. It is an immersive experience provided through our partner, Detour, and we’re excited about that because it’s our first walking tour project!

Q: Who did we partner with on the exhibition?

A: In addition to our partnership with Detour we have objects on loan from the Winterthur Museum’s Conservation Department, Eastern State Penitentiary, and the National Park Service, and the Fox Historic Costume Collection at Drexel University.

Q: Will there be any interactive points?

A: Our walking tour, Things Fall Apart: An Old City Walking Tour, is an immersive, interactive experience. Visitor can explore Old City through the lens of 300 years of changing history. Old City has actually been a lot of different cities—it has so many layers. What it looks like now doesn’t necessarily reflect what it looked like 100 years ago, or 150, or 250. The app is a chance to uncover what’s hidden and will encourage people to view the city differently, to take photos and ask questions about their experience.

We also invite visitors to use our hashtag, #WhatFallsApart, to share images and reflections on decay and preservation that they’re seeing in their own environments. We hope that a real conversation will emerge.

Hope Koseff Corse

is the Institute's director of external relations.