Museum of Capitalism Offers Scathing Critique of American Culture

Love it or hate it, capitalism is an economic system that is so deeply entrenched into each of our lives that we simultaneously don’t notice its presence and can’t imagine living without it. We spend our entire lives learning how to operate within the capitalistic economic system that surrounds us, yet most of us spend little time contemplating the nature of capitalism and what it really means in our day-to-day lives. In light of this contradiction, the Museum of Capitalism, a roving art exhibition currently on display in Manhattan, imagines what capitalism would look like from the perspective of someone living in a future after the economic system has collapsed.

While the museum is based on a fictional premise, it incorporates so-called “artifacts” of capitalism from the real world to offer social commentary. Energy bars and cheeseburgers, for instance, were passed around on trays and offered as “edible artifacts,” and a hand-cranked “minimum wage machine” dispenses pennies at a rate of roughly one cent roughly every three seconds, allowing them to earn money at the same rate as a minimum-wage employee. Another of the museum’s exhibits is a disassembly line, where visitors were invited to destroy discarded shoes and cell phone chargers with hammers and pliers. The idea is to portray capitalism as if it were an alien concept or an artifact of a bygone era to encourage the public to contemplate the economic system in a new light.

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The project started in 2017, in Oakland, California, opening in a failed retail space in a gentrified warehouse district. The first exhibition included a gift shop, as well as an exact replica of this gift shop but with all of the items for sale removed. Over the years, as the museum opened in various places, the curators added and removed art pieces, such as an installation of barbed wire which, as the museum notes, played an instrumental role in the spread of capitalism as it enabled westward expansion by allowing individuals to more effectively protect their property, as well as informing intellectual property laws. The barbed wire, installed within the museum’s windows, is visible from both inside and outside the museum, raising the question of whether the “real” museum of capitalism is within the gallery’s walls, or outside on the streets of New York.

Museum visitors can take the pennies they earned at the minimum wage machine to the “anti-capitalist coin crusher,” which adorns these coins with slogans like “property is theft,” turning them into souvenirs.

The gallery explores the various aspects of capitalism from a number of perspectives, including labor, gentrification, and fossil fuels, with the intent of making the system of capitalism seem strange, such as in a label that reads “The F.D.I.C. was a corporation of the United States government whose role was to provide deposit insurance,” describing a shelf lined with books with the logos of companies that failed during the 2008 financial crisis. Other installations include a collection of American flags made by prisoners and a collection of pens used for marketing pharmaceutical companies.

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The museum has invited guests to donate objects that “speak to the lived experience of capitalism.” One guest brought an empty bottle of Adderall. Museum visitors can take the pennies they earned at the minimum wage machine to the “anti-capitalist coin crusher,” which adorns these coins with slogans like “property is theft,” turning them into souvenirs. As a whole, the museum is overtly political, with an organizer saying “until capitalism is over, the Museum of Capitalism will still have work to do.” The museum’s website deadpans, “Our educational work is crucial for establishing justice for the victims of capitalism and preventing its resurgence.” Perhaps one of the most emotionally stirring installations in the museum is a 6 by 9 by 7 foot room, equalling the size of a prison cell, which visitors are invited to stand inside and listen to more than a hundred voicemails left by people responding to a fictional apartment ad offering a room of this size for $612 per month. This piece speaks to the effects of income inequality on people’s ability to find decent living conditions, and invites visitors to contemplate the oftentimes-invisible effects capitalism has had on their lives.