by Greer Montgomery (MA, 2017)
On Saturday, June 17th, a new museum opened in Oakland’s Jack London district. Not only is it a new museum, but it is also the first museum of its kind in the United States: a Museum of Capitalism.
Created by conceptual artist duo FICTILIS, the Museum of Capitalism is dedicated to, as its mission states, “educating this generation and future generations about the ideology, history, and legacy of capitalism.” The museum displays multimedia exhibits created by a diverse range of artists, artifacts of capitalism donated by ordinary citizens, and hosts a variety of events complementing the objects on display.
The United States that I grew up in – the United States that most of us continue to live in – places the values of the free market and capitalism on a pedestal. Even in the progressive Bay Area, any conversation that calls our nation’s fundamental economic principal into question can lead to apprehension and discomfort. The Museum of Capitalism does not shy away from raising uncomfortable questions and encoraging complicated conversations. In fact, a key aspect of the museum is that it operates under the premise that capitalism has ended.
Artists participating in the inaugural exhibition were invited to respond to the concept of “a museum memorializing the era of capitalism.” As the curators behind FICITILIS acknowledge:
Capitalism is difficult to contain in one exhibition, let alone one museum, and for many of us, capitalism is too close for us to recognize it. Museums can help with this kind of reflection, even if it’s only partial or momentary.
I first learned about the conceptual curatorial project during Professor Paula Birnbaum’s Museum Studies History and Theory course in the fall of 2016. Andrea Steves, half of the duo behind FICTILIS and the Museum of Capitalism, came to speak to the class about the new exhibition that she and her partner, Timothy Furstnau, were planning. Funded by a $215,000 grant from the Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation in 2016, the pair set out to imagine how to question and commemorate the hypothetical end of the global economic paradigm of capitalism.
I was captivated by the critical nature of the project and its examination of tough topics and ideas. I was intimidated by the prospect of crafting an entire museum from scratch.
Following the class, I reached out to Andrea asking if they were looking for interns, and in December of 2016, I began working with the Museum of Capitalism as a Writing and Research Intern. In this position, I helped out on a range of writing and editing projects, including work on their catalogue, researching types of capitalisms (ex Zombie capitalism or Laissez Faire capitalism), writing descriptions of museum artifacts, and drafting museum press releases.
Throughout my work with the Museum of Capitalism, the project that I enjoyed the most was crafting a timeline of human history. The timeline, which extends back to the first indicators of human civilization, hundreds of thousands of years ago, charts our progression across the centuries and demonstrates that capitalism has actually existed only briefly within the expanse of human history. As Timothy puts it, “if human history were condensed down to just an hour, capitalism would exist for about 40 seconds.” The timeline gave me a wonderful perspective into how long humans have functioned in different ways around the globe, and how capitalism may not be the ultimate or only way of operating in society.
Perhaps what I value most about the Museum of Capitalism is its emphasis on thinking critically about seemingly engrained aspects of our society. By studying various “artifacts of capitalism”, from plastiglomerate to universal handcuff keys, I was forced to think about the ways that capitalism pervades our everyday lives in both obvious and subtle ways.
The Museum of Capitalism’s inaugural exhibition runs from June 15 through August 20, 2017. To read learn more about the Museum of Capitalism and its reception, check out the following articles in the San Francisco Chronicle, Artsy, and SFGate.
Photographs courtesy of Greer Montgomery.
To learn more about University of San Francisco’s graduate museum studies program, click here.