The Mercer Museum

This summer, in addition to our recent road trip, my in-laws decided to take the Pictlings on vacation in pairs.  For the first time in over ten years, therefore, I was left with just two children to care for and keep busy.  The youngest two went off on their grandparent vacation first so I had the 11 and 14 year old at home.  I decided, therefore, to take them to explore a place none of us had visited: the Mercer Museum in Doylestown.

The Mercer Museum is named for Henry Chapman Mercer and reflects his pursuits and hobbies.  He was a tile-maker, an avid collector, and an archaeologist and the museum showcases all of these interests.  The museum building is, in fact, one of his creations.  Mercer designed three poured concrete buildings, all in Doylestown: his Moravian Tile Works; his home, Fonthill; and the museum.  The building, therefore, is an exhibit in its own right and – in my opinion – it was the best thing about the museum.

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We started in a modern extension to the building where there was a special exhibition about one woman’s collection of quilts and a selection of marvelous dollhouses.  I have no ability with sewing and could never even dream of embarking on something like a quilt but I enjoyed seeing the variety of designs and styles.  All three of us liked the dollhouses for all the tiny details and the meticulous crafting of scaled household items.  Soon enough, however, it was time to enter the actual museum building and it was a wow moment to step out into the central area.  We were surrounded on all sides by spaces full of interesting collections but the real impact came from looking up.  The museum is six or seven floors (it gets confusing) and we could stand in that first atrium area and look up through all of the floors, up to where a collection of chairs were suspended from the ceiling, our eyes darting past buggies and boats and even a fire engine that were dangling from the walls.

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Walking around the Mercer Museum is like poking around in someone’s really organised attic. Each collection has its own designated nook within the space.  Mercer appears to have been interested in the tools, equipment, and workshops of a wide variety of trades so each display space was themed around some industry.  We saw, for example, a collection of hair combs made from tortoise shell along with the shells and the tools used to slice and carve them.  There was a room dedicated to shoemaking with a large collection of cobbler’s lasts hanging on one wall.  Another space was full of hats and hat-making equipment.  There was a woodworking shop, a blacksmith’s furnace, a room full of spindles and spinning wheels, medical and apothecary equipment, a huge collection of lanterns, musical instruments (my kids laughed when I said the word “hurdy gurdy” with my Scottish accent), moulds for making confectionery, whaling implements, and so much more.  I confess to being not very enthused by industrial history but I found this collection quite charming.  With it being organised the way it was, I could quickly skim and scan the collections that I was not fussed by – such as gunsmithing – and spend more time with the items I did find more engaging, such as the glassblowing workshop.

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Now, being honest, my sons were not really digging the museum.  They gave passing glances to most displays but were not overly interested in the contents or in hearing me tell them about domestic industries of times past.  They were, however, more interested in the large items on display.  Seeing a whaleboat up close gave them an appreciation for how dangerous and difficult the job of whaling was when sent out in a relatively small, narrow and shallow whaling boat into the midst of large sea mammals.  They also thought the Conestoga wagon and stagecoach were cool.  One narrow little entry way took us into an area that was set up to look like a general store and they found that pretty interesting, spotting familiar items in unfamiliar packaging.  Being macabre little souls (they take after me in that respect) they also liked seeing a set of gallows and implements linked to crime and punishment.  We also entertained ourselves with our usual museum quest to find the ugliest and/or most offensive items on display.  The various tobacco advert carvings easily won the contest.

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There was a dog theme running throughout the museum.  Apparently Mercer loved dogs, especially Chesapeake Bay Retrievers.  We saw a statue of one on the way in and then, when we found ourselves in various children’s sections of the museum, there were a couple of cuddly dogs.  Best of all, however, were a set of paw prints, made by a dog named Rollo, imprinted into the concrete between two upper floors of the museum.  Finally, outside the museum, as we headed back to the car, we passed the grave markers for two pet pooches.

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For them and for me, however, the whole highlight of our visit was simply the building itself.  It was marvelously bonkers.  Each set of stairs brought us to another level lined with strange little nooks and crannies, there were weird doorways, steps that went up only to immediately go down again, and all manner of strangely shaped windows.  It was incredible to think that all of these shapes and forms and levels had been constructed by pouring concrete.  We really enjoyed the experience of wandering around and never quite knowing, despite having a map, where we were going to end up.  At one point, we took a staircase down to see a vast collection of stoveplates, entered an adjoining room showcasing tiles, and somehow found ourselves back in a room we had been in some time before and on a different floor altogether.  It made all three of us think of Hogwart’s Castle.  Thinking back to the dollhouses at the beginning of our visit, I could not help thinking about how much fun it would be to have unfettered access to the museum and play within its walls.  We will now have to visit Fonthill and the Moravian Tile Works some time.

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17 thoughts on “The Mercer Museum

  1. The building looks incredible – I completely agree with you Laura, it would be my highlight as well. Love the idea of the ugliest/most offensive item – I think we might pinch this idea, it would work for us!!

    • The building is so much fun. The effort that went into creating it must have been immense.

      Do please pinch the ugly/offensive object idea. It’s fun. We started it for jumble sales and car boot sales but then expanded it out to museums and art galleries. We sometimes have a “treasure hunt” too where we decide on five subjects in advance that we look to spot – things like an octopus, something with derpy eyes, arms that are too long, a big forehead, a blue bird.

    • I hope you make it some day. An even better museum, also based around someone’s collection, is the Shelburne Museum in Vermont. The woman collected barns, among other things. Actual barns. That tells you something about the scale of the collection. I loved it there and am dying to take my kids.

  2. I’m so happy you went here. I know this complex well (along with Fonthill and Moravian Tile Works). As I understand it, Mercer’s idea was that he saw the implements and tools of the past (his past) dying out with industrialization and being wealthy, he apparently bought these things as they were being thrown away, by the boatload, almost. His interest in tiles, which is where I know more, came from the same kind of idea – preserving the methods of the past in making them. I think this museum is the kind of place you see something new everytime you go. And…the crazy buildings. He was truly an original.

    • I will definitely visit the tile works and Fonthill some time. I almost got us the joint ticket for the Mercer and Fonthill but the boys were not keen on the idea of having to take a guided tour.

      • My feeling is, take the kids to Fonthill when there is a special event and they can roam. The tour is kind of DRY. The Moravian tile works, they need to do an update of the historical part of the tour. Dusty and not interestingly explained. It is interesting to see them make tiles in the Mercer way, though.

      • I hate to say it, it seems disloyal, but I would have liked to take a hose to the whole Moravian Tile works exhibit, clear out the dusty corners, get better signs, and more objects. Then I would have been happy. Fonthill is on the other hand almost too overwhelming. There are many aspects the tours can take and mostly they seem to be not that kid-friendly. I think you on your own would love it, though.

      • Yes, maybe I’ll escape on my own some time. I hear you on cleaning up and improving museums. I used to hate how dingy and decrepit the British Museum was. Some of the best artifacts in the world and you’d think they were being housed in a shed. Things were labeled but with no additional information. It was dire and used to frustrate me so much. Then they spruced it up and improved the curation a hundred fold and now it’s magnificent.

    • It really was quite something to walk into that ground floor space and look up and be surrounded by these vastly tall walls filled to the brim with collections and even a ceiling covered in chairs.

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