Beyond Glass Cases: The Library Company of Philadelphia’s “Collections Lab”, funded by the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, represents the Library Company’s ongoing commitment to boldly, honestly, and thoughtfully interpret challenging, and at times harmful, collection items. As the Library Company approaches its 300th birthday in 2031, one of our most pressing challenges is to confront our own history as we strive to inspire our diverse constituency towards transformative and meaningful reconciliation.
Three synergistic, exploratory projects (2024), a culminating exhibition (2025), and a symposium (2025) form the scope of Beyond Glass Cases. In each of the three projects, a visual artist, activist, educator, poet, playwright, passionate scholar, musician, technologist, performer, or some combination thereof will offer an experimental mode or method of engaging with a designated collection item or collection of items. These projects may take the form of a multimedia or traditional work of art, a performance, an interactive website, or something that takes the collection beyond display a glass case! While holding space for the collection item’s historical significance, the projects will transcend traditional exhibition models with the goals of finding new and better ways of advancing understanding and engaging public awareness of their complex histories.
The focal points for the three projects are:
A painting. “Liberty Displaying the Arts and Sciences, or the Genius of America Encouraging the Emancipation of the Blacks” was commissioned by the Library Company in 1792 both to commemorate the opening of the library’s first purpose-built building and to publicly demonstrate support for the abolition of slavery. For most of its 200+ year existence the painting has been publicly displayed as a symbol of the Library Company’s long history and great promise. Until recently it was on display in the William H. Scheide Reading Room, a prominent space that is occupied daily by staff, researchers, event guests, and others.
This important – yet polarizing – work of art has evoked a wide variety of responses from our diverse learning community. Closely tied to our institutional history, Liberty Displaying the Arts and Sciences was the first allegorical painting by an American-born artist to address the issue of slavery and its abolition, yet its iconography is often read differently by 21st-century viewers, many of whom find it harmful or offensive.
The archive of a 19th-century race scientist. Samuel George Morton (1799-1851) was a Philadelphia physician, naturalist, and central figure at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia from the 1820s until his death as its president. Morton is known today as among the most influential architects of scientific racism in the United States, both for his publications – most notably Crania Americana (1839), Crania Aegpytiaca (1844), and a Catalogue of Skulls (1849) – and for the collection of nearly one thousand grave-robbed or otherwise non-consensually taken human skulls from across the world, amassed during his lifetime to supply the “data” for these works.
This project is led by anthropologist and historian Paul Wolff Mitchell in partnership with community organizations.
A community choice. The collection object at the center of this project will be selected by the applicant, who will then submit a proposal for a public engagement that responds to the object. Applicants may work with the Library Company staff to identify potential collection objects from which to choose. The collections hold countless items that resonate with the goals of Beyond Glass Cases. In addition to holding a significant collection of art and artifacts, the library collections include deep documentation of African American history, the history of popular medicine, women’s and LGBTQ+ history, the visual culture of 18th and 19th-century America, and numerous other subjects.
Call for Proposals
If you are excited by this opportunity and would like to develop a proposal for an installation, artwork, or other form of public engagement in response to Liberty Displaying the Arts and Sciences or another item from the Library Company collections?
We welcome your interest.
Individuals and groups from historically marginalized communities, as well as interdisciplinary collaborations that bring together diverse perspectives, are strongly encouraged to apply.
For project guidelines and information on how to apply, please see this page.
Beyond Glass Cases: The Library Company of Philadelphia’s “Collections Lab” has been supported by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage.