The traveling “Museum of Capitalism” exhibit currently on display at the Tufts School of the Museum of Fine Arts (SMFA) describes itself as “an institution dedicated to educating present and future generations about the history, philosophy, and legacy of capitalism through exhibitions, research, and publication.” In reality, it is a thorough and biting critique of capitalism through art installations as well as representations of capitalism displayed like relics.
To argue against the entire system of capitalism is controversial, in part because so many alternatives (feudalism, or communist governments in Russia and China) have resulted in brutal regimes in the past. But that does not mean we must accept the status quo, and this exhibit argues that if we really do believe in the American dream, we should not accept it. As the exhibit progresses, we see that many contemporary problems that arose from capitalism are not controversial at all; in fact, they are self-evident. Those in power — be it economic, societal, political or any combination thereof — do not voluntarily relinquish power. And why should they, when they benefit from the system they control? The problem, the museum points out, is that the capitalist system consolidates wealth and power in the hands of the few, while many continue to suffer. The Museum of Capitalism is a tribute to the casualties of the system.
Lining the outside of the exhibit (which is divided into two gallery spaces) is a series of plaques describing different forms and subdivisions of capitalism, like Neo-Liberal Capitalism, State Capitalism and Philanthro-Capitalism. This provides a useful background into what capitalism is and how it manifests in history, and is the least subjective commentary on capitalism in the whole exhibit. But right inside those walls is a micro-study of capitalism’s consequences in our society. These range from the obvious, like relics from the housing crisis and mass bailout of the banks in 2008 and plastic embedded into rocks from Hawaii. Others are insidious, like the Mattel’s depiction of a Barbie dream house as a glorification of capital and the post-war nuclear household. And others are outright and interactive in the museum, like the wry commemorative coin machine that will take your $1.01 and return a stamped penny with anti-capitalist slogans on it. Users can turn a crank that dispenses a penny every 4 seconds, in time with the Massachusetts minimum wage of $11 per hour of labor.
Some of the exhibit pieces are unsubtle to a fault. A piece titled “Core Samples” attempts to show the future fossils of today, depicted as iPhones, batteries and other pieces of technology preserved in resin. Although beautifully constructed, attacking smartphones as a representation of our current detachment from reality under modern capitalism is such a tired point it almost reads as parody. “Library of Tears” depicts oil, gasoline and other ecologically damaging fuels as filled glass teardrops, which comes across as an overeager grasp for an emotional response. And closest to the exhibit entrance, the American flag made out of police alert lights speaks more to America and our identity as a police state than capitalism itself: a tenuous and unclear association for the majority of people who have not investigated capitalism and its alternatives in depth.
But it also highlights many overlooked facets of capitalism’s effects, particularly on American culture. One of the most significant is a wall of commentary and photographs of the Poor People’s Campaign and March on Washington in 1968, organized by Martin Luther King Jr. (whom many forget had a staunch disapproval of capitalism). Another is a binder filled with congratulation letters after an IBM employee’s retirement, which illuminates the transformation of workplace culture into a false sense of “family,” and a paradoxical glorification of hard work and eventual freedom from its necessity.
The Museum of Capitalism is at its most moving and effective when it delves into personal narratives. One section of the video series “We Build Excitement” depicts laid-off auto factory workers miming the physical work they used to do day to day. Another video portrays the fascinating and brilliant perspective of an incarcerated woman who, in an almost literary irony, is paid only 65 cents an hour to sew American flags in the prison sweatshop. She undoes her own work and tears the flag apart stripe by stripe, declaring, “This flag does represent that people can change and everyone deserves a second change … [but] this is what happens to the lives of the have-nots in America. They get shredded. I know because I was one.”
The Museum of Capitalism is on view at the SMFA August 29–October 25, in the Grossman Gallery. Admission is free and open to the public.