Display cases: Rethinking the museum’s role

The First Person Museum is not a traditional museum. There are no exotic fossils or Egyptian artifacts or paintings by famous Impressionists. Its contents are, however, precious to the everyday Philadelphians who contributed to the project, which serves as the centerpiece to this week’s First Person Festival.

“We started working on developing this project right when the economic bubble crashed. We weren’t intending to do a museum, but we were all kind of realizing that our connection to things had shifted dramatically,” says First Person Arts founder Vicki Solot. “Everyone was contracting and thinking about the things in their lives differently.”

Culled from community story circles and workshops, the 60 objects in the exhibit range from knickknacks to heirlooms — but everything has a story. One mother contributed her incarcerated son’s boxers, the only belonging the prison returned to her. There is an imperfect knitting project on display, completed by the friend of a more experienced crafter after she passed away. And although the relationship was abusive, another woman has saved and shared her wedding ring — complete with divorce papers and its “coffin” (the container formerly known as a jewelry box).

“Everything that people identified for this museum was seemingly commonplace; the meaning grew out of the story,” says Solot. “Everybody has stuff that is important to them, and it turns out that everybody has things that they value more because of the stories and people involved with them.”