"Philadelphia Assembled," the sprawling exhibition that fills the Art Museum's Perelman Building through Dec. 10, was created by hundreds of people, working mostly in Philadelphia neighborhoods during the last three years.

Its organizers, including Dutch artist Jeanne van Heeswijk, who initiated it at the Art Museum's request, talk about the show not so much as a finished product but as part of a process of  "reclaiming and re-imagining" what Philadelphia is and what it should be. There is some art here, but it takes second place to an exercise in networking and community organizing.

The exhibition is a mélange of art, artifact, and polemic. One large wall contains a map of Pennsylvania with all the prisons in which Philadelphians are serving life sentences, along with Polaroid photos and statements by the prisoners. A painted portrait of Delbert Africa, a leader of MOVE convicted to 100 years in prison following the 1978 shootout at the group's Powelton house, shows him as a Christ figure, complete with gold halo, crucified across a front page of the Inquirer.

That painting appears under J, for Justice, in a gallery organized by the letters of the alphabet. "We use the alphabet," a typically jargon-laden label explains, "to declare that sovereignty means freedom to create a new language paradigm, from A to Z."

A room from the Kensington house that is home to the Alumni Ex-Offenders program is installed as a "period room," old recliners and all. There is a room wallpapered with questionnaires about how people feel about the city and its future. "Is there a place in your community where you feel you belong?" says one question. "Nope," is a respondent's answer.

There is a one-year-old baobab seedling, a print by Kara Walker about the slave trade, and an 18th century bronze collar for a female slave. There is an excellent selection of photographs by Jeffrey Stockbridge of drug addicts and sex workers in Kensington, along with audio tapes of people on the street, and handwritten statements, such as one in which a mother says she should be cooking for her child, but thinks she will get high instead.

The Perelman Building's atrium features five large map-murals that correspond to the "atmospheres" around which the show is organized. These are Movement, Sovereignty, Futures, Reconstruction, and Sanctuary. The maps mark places in Philadelphia, and events here and throughout the world, that the working groups who made them find significant. They have the look of those free, out-of-scale tourist maps that show only advertisers, but even if confusing, they provide some orientation for the show.

Oh, and there is also food. The café has been given over to people, both home cooks and professionals, who are preparing their versions of dishes from their families and communities. It's delicious.

"Philadelphia Assembled" is kind of a mess. That may be a fair reflection of Philadelphia, which, overall, is kind of a mess, too. But the show is also seeks to affirm that what we have here is not "urban carnage" but rather a city in which individuals and families are trying to make lives for themselves.

As Art Museum director Timothy Rub said at the press preview, "Philadelphia Assembled" is unlike anything seen at the Art Museum before. It represents an invitation by the Art Museum to give itself over to people and ideas that haven't been seen there before, along with a suspension of the standards the museum generally applies. Rub cast the exhibition as an experiment that marks the beginning of an explicit commitment by the museum to civic engagement.

This is something that funders seem to like. All the major foundations here are behind this project. And the Art Museum, like comprehensive museums everywhere, needs to expand both its audience and, as a quasi-public institution, its political support.

"Philadelphia Assembled" has brought new people in the door not just as audience members, but also as planners, creators, craftspeople, and community leaders. Many people have ownership of this show, and the expectation is that they will convince their friends, neighbors, and associates to come see what they have done. Such a network, if the museum can cultivate it and expand it, can expand the museum's presence in the city.

The show's title recalls the Philadelphia Assembly, the annual ball founded in 1748 and restricted to the city's oldest and most prestigious families, the sort of people who have traditionally supported the Art Museum. In 1755, members of the Mohawk tribe were invited to the Assembly to perform a "scalping dance," arguably an early, if clumsy, instance of outreach. "Philadelphia Assembled" is messy and inclusive, the opposite of the Assembly in many ways, but, like it, the product of a social network that has its own values and blind spots.

The voices in "Philadelphia Assembled" seem to speak not to a broad audience, but rather to each other. Despite its claim of "radical inclusivity," the exhibit seems to grow more from academic cultural-studies ideas than from the actual streets of the city.

The show seems to want to tell us how to think, which is probably not what the Art Museum should do. Its role is to enable people to see more and see better — through art, not argument.

There are some powerful things to see in the show, but the combination of its chaotic visual organization and its tendentious explanatory material are barriers to visitors' experience. One can hope that this ambitious experiment will bring new audiences and support for the museum, while remaining skeptical that it will.

Meanwhile, old-line museum-goers can conveniently dismiss this as a show in an annex building that is easily ignored. Coming up Nov. 3 in the main building: "Old Masters Now."

Philadelphia Assembled

Through Dec. 10 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Perelman Building, 2525 Pennsylvania Ave.

Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday. Closed Mondays.

Admission: Pay what you wish, for this exhibition only.

Information: 215-763-8100 or www.philamuseum.org.