Things Fall Apart

An exhibition and walking tour exploring the life and afterlife of things.

Some things decay slowly, such as radioactive isotopes, while others are designed to be disposable, like a paper cup. We’re surrounded by constant change as we reclaim, reuse, and reimagine our material environment.

Denis Diderot, Encyclopédie. Science History Institute
Things Fall Apart

Some decay is irreversible. Some is inspirational. Artisans such as Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848–1933) loved the unusual look of archaeological glass. Our Roman ball flask, dating to about 200 CE, shows off a multicolored, opalescent shine that took a millennium to achieve.

Roman ball flask. Science History Institute
Things Fall Apart

Wooden artifacts are extremely vulnerable to changes in relative humidity—the amount of moisture in the air. Stains and warping on our nalcometer show that this device spent years in wet, warm, humid environments. But why? Find out this object’s “explosive” life story when you visit our exhibition.

Nalcometer. Science History Institute
Things Fall Apart

Hungry bookworms made a meal out of this 18th-century encyclopedia volume. Look closely and see the printed pages transformed into a latticework of holes.

Denis Diderot, Encyclopédie. Science History Institute
Things Fall Apart

This unusual plastic test material poses a challenge to conservation experts. Identifying plastics is key to their survival. So just what is it made of? That’s for a spectrophotometer to know and you to find out.

Plastic test amalgamation. Science History Institute

Things Fall Apart

On view from June 17, 2017, to April 7, 2018.

If nothing lasts forever, how and why do we save what we save? Everything falls apart: compounds break down, solids crumble, surfaces rust. We’re surrounded by constant change as we reclaim, reuse, or reimagine our material environment. Yet decay is also connected to our hopes for the future and our understanding of the past. Our impulse to protect treasured objects is a desire to hold onto the stories they tell. But whose stories survive? This exhibition and walking tour explored the life and afterlife of things—and why we fight to preserve them.

Read more about the exhibition in a Distillations blog interview with curator Elisabeth Berry Drago. 

Featured Artworks

Things Fall Apart also featured contemporary art by the winners of our juried competition: Aubrie Costello, Dominique Ellis, Michelle Marcuse, and José Ortiz-Pagán.

Each artist’s work offered a unique meditation on themes of change, loss, and transformation. Aubrie Costello’s ephemeral, outdoor fabric installations are subject to wind and rain, revealing the changes wrought by our environment. Dominique Ellis’s intentional manipulations of ceramics materials explore defect and damage in process. Michelle Marcuse’s cardboard architectures generate fantastic—but impermanent—landscapes of memory. José Ortiz-Pagán’s use of transformed steel and rust evokes postindustrial landscapes and the tensions exposed by time. 


Press Coverage

CBS: “Elements of Life and Death at Chemical Heritage Museum

Philadelphia Inquirer: “Decay, Rot on Display at Chemical Heritage Museum

NewsWorks: “Audio Tour Highlights Historic Preservation Flash Points in Philly’s Old City

Things Fall Apart: An Old City Walking Tour

As part of this exhibition, the Institute presented Things Fall Apart: An Old City Walking Tour, narrated by exhibition curator Elisabeth Berry Drago. This walking tour explored stories of decay, preservation, and renewal in this historic Philadelphia neighborhood, featuring interviews with preservation experts.