Hopewell Furnace

Our youngest son turned 9 over Memorial Day weekend.  He likes to get out and explore new places so, after gfit opening and birthday breakfast, we decided to take a day trip to Hopewell Furnace.  Despite being relatively close to home, it is a National Historic Site we had not visited in our four years of living in PA so it was high time we went to check it out.

As Hopewell Furnace was in operation prior to the American Revolution, it is considered to be one of America’s oldest industrial sites and, therefore, a place of historic significance.  We began our trip in the Visitor’s Centre with a video providing us with a useful potted history of the “iron plantation”.  We learned about the site having been chosen because of a confluence of natural resources, about the evolving treatment of and attitude African-American workers – ranging from slavery to early desegregation and the Underground Railroad – and of female employees, its contribution to the War of Independence, and about the process of manufacturing iron as it was undertaken from the 1770s through to its closure in the 1880s.

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As with all National Parks sites, Hopewell Furnace was beautifully maintained and easy to navigate.  We found that we could walk in a loop and take in all of the buildings and ruins.  Hopewell operated as a charcoal furnace for most of its existence because the price of hauling coal to the site was prohibitive so we saw the area where charcoal would have been created.  We had learned that the furnace could consume as much as 800 bushels of charcoal in one day so it must have been a demanding job.  We all enjoyed seeing the blast furnace, not simply because it was very cool inside on such a hot day.  I normally find it pretty challenging to engage with industrial heritage but I had no difficulty imagining the workers operating inside the furnace as it all seemed so visually clear.  We had seen where the “ingredients” would be dropped into the shaft in order to be super-heated, and then the bit at the bottom of the “chimney” from where the molten metal would flow once the seal was broken.  There was then a nearby area where the skilled workers would pour the iron into sand moulds in order to manufacture various items.  We were all somewhat mesmerised by the water wheel.  Sure it was a nifty piece of engineering and critical to the manufacturing process but I think for at least the boys and me it was really just that there is something aesthetically pleasing and calming about watching a wheel rotate.

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We had been informed that the workers’ houses were not yet open to the public for the season but, in fact, we found that a couple of them were open.  They had been furnished with reproduction furniture and household items which was fantastic as it helped us understand how families utilised the space and also allowed the kids to engage a bit more since the experience became tactile.  My husband and the birthday boy even played a quick card game in one of the houses.  Industrial history doesn’t really do it for me so it was the social history regarding issues like racial (in)equality and the lives of the workers that really helped to anchor my interest in the site.

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After some time spent befriending Maximilian the horse, our final stop was the Ironmaster’s house.  The ground floor is open for viewing, with barriers keeping visitors back from the furniture and other artefacts that bring each room to life.  I think what my kids most enjoyed about the “big house”, however, was the porch complete with rocking chairs.  After months of dismal weather, they have not yet readjusted to heat and sunlight.  They better get used to it, however, as I intend for us to be outdoors a lot this summer after hibernating for months.

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Flowers and Freedom

On Saturday, I went with a friend to the Philadelphia Flower Show.  On my own.  Child-free.  No clock-watching or pressure of time.  It was an absolute luxury.  I really know very little about flowers and gardening.  My friend knows a bit more than I do but is no expert.  I think it is safe to say, therefore, that attending the Flower Show was an opportunity to just be grown ups together and enjoy each other’s company more than it was about indulging any horticultural interest or ability.

This was also my first time attending an event in the Convention Centre.  My husband and two of my children have attended Philly Comic Con annually since we emigrated to America so they are veterans of the Convention Centre but I have had no reason to go before.  The Flower Show is run by the Philadelphia Horticultural Society and is apparently America’s longest running and oldest flower show, dating as it does from 1829.  I imagine that people attend in order to be inspired by new plant varieties, by landscape design, to participate in competitions, and to meet with other flower enthusiasts.  Aside from the opportunity for a day of unfettered freedom, the appeal for me lay in seeing a riot of colour and vibrant life given how much I have been loathing Winter and craving Spring.

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Given my degree of ignorance, this will not be a long blog post.  I did, however, enjoy wandering among the displays and showcases.  Most impressive was a tropical jungle built around scaffolding poles that had been painted to mimic bamboo and which were festooned with stunning flowers in bold colours, including cascades of orchids and swirling leaves, and incorporating various water features including a series of waterfalls and the occasional shower of rain.  I was also very taken with a desert area filled with an incredible variety of cacti and succulents.  My friend and I became a tad obsessed with one colloquially named “dinosaur back” because of all of its folds and ridges.  Had one been available for purchase, I might have brought that home with me.  I am not very good at keeping houseplants alive but cacti do somehow manage to survive in my care despite my negligence and evil eye.

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The theme of the flower show was apparently water.  That seemed like a very easy challenge to me since almost all plants require water for sustenance and many garden designs incorporate water.  Still, I do enjoy a good water feature so I liked seeing the variety of ways in which water had been built into the landscaping.  Aside from the water, we noticed some other repetitions of design: glass orbs and copper.  We congratulated ourselves on spotting what might be a gardening “trend”.  There was. for instance, a visually appealing display involving a mirrored table (imagine keeping that clean of smears and finger smudges?) with glass orbs hanging above it like a chandelier, each orb containing a plant.  I thought it would make for a pretty wedding table whereas in my home it would make for megatons of stress and fingers being cut on shards of smashed glass.  On the subject of weddings, I did love an outdoor wedding table, all wood and soft moss, including what looked like a tiered cake made from slices of log.  I could imagine Oberon and Titania dining in just such a setting.

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The competition areas were befuddling to me.  My lack of expertise meant that I could not possibly figure out why one plant or arrangement had been awarded first place while another was an honorable mention.  It was another opportunity to see a diverse selection of plants I had never encountered before.  There was a miniature citrus tree with blossoms and fruit, venus fly traps and pitcher plants inside humid terrariums, arrangements inside tea cups (I liked those a lot!), lots of breathtaking orchids, and blooms in every shape and colour.  I was drawn to the weirdo plants, the non-conformists, and the ones that looked like me if I was a plant.  I got more excited than a grown woman ought to when I spotted some chubby tuberous plants that looked just like mandrakes from ‘Harry Potter’.

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In truth, I cannot say I learned much after a day at the Flower Show and any sense of inspiration was tempered by the reality of my green-finger skills (which are brown-thumbed to be honest).  I did, however, very much enjoy a pleasant day out without the responsibility of keeping children engaged.

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Grounds for Sculpture

This has been a horrible winter.  It has not actually snowed much but instead we have had to contend with various pestilences and too many rainy, miserable weekends.  While I do enjoy hibernating a bit over winter, cabin fever definitely set in.  I desperately needed some fresh air and exploration for the sake of my mental wellbeing.  This past weekend, therefore, we took advantage of a dry day to go and visit the Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton, New Jersey.  We had previously attempted a visit there but it was Labour Day weekend and all of the tickets for the day were gone by the time we arrived.  This time we prebooked to be assured of entry, though in reality it was pretty quiet.

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The Grounds for Sculpture is essentially an outdoor exhibition space for sculptures by a variety of artists.  The museum was founded by artist Seward Johnson.  I must confess that his was not a name I knew but it turned out I did know some of his sculptures.  The one most people can probably recall to their mind’s eye is ‘Double Check’ which depicts a seated businessman looking through his briefcase.  It was captured in an iconic photo of 9/11 as, covered in dust and debris, it looked no different from the real people making their way through the streets after the towers collapsed.  A replica of that statue greeted us as we entered the Visitor Center.

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The Visitor Center showcased some of Johnson’s other works too, such as his Marilyn Monroe based on the famous photo of her from ‘The Seven Year Itch’, a group of musicians, and a styrofoam sculpture of a reclining girl that was painted to look like it was made from marble and chrome.  What was a big hit with the boys, however, was a room made to look like Van Gogh’s painting of his ‘Bedroom in Arles’.  We all enjoyed the feeling of having stepped inside the painting and be seeing such a famous work from a different perspective.

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The vast outdoor space contained hundreds of sculptures.  Every pathway brought us to a different art work and we enjoyed the almost “treasure hunt” aspect of finding some of the statues that were partially concealed behind bushes or were only accessible by following a small path.  Some statues made the kids chortle, including one of a man urinating into bushes and a very phallic obelisk.  I enjoyed the variety of art works on display, from the abstract to the kitsch, from the ones hewn from natural materials to the brightly coloured ones crafted from manmade materials.  We all enjoyed the oversized, three dimensional versions of famous Impressionist paintings because of that feeling of being able to magically step inside a painting.  We also enjoyed the celebration of kitsch and the fact that many of the statues could be touched and interacted with as adjacent signs specified that they could be respectfully touched or even climbed on.  I believe one of the mission statements of the Grounds for Sculpture is to engage more people in public art so it was great to be able to let the kids feel the texture of a bronze sculpture or hang out with Renoir’s party-goers.

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The grounds themselves were lovely, very peaceful, filled with trees and plants, and peacocks.  There were also some nice buildings dotted around and bodies of water and arching bridges.  I can imagine that the whole place looks even more appealing in other seasons when there is more colour and leaves on the trees.  Since the Grounds are spread over 42 acres, we had lots of opportunity to wander and run around and explore.  However, even though we were there for a few hours, we did not manage to see everything.  We will absolutely have to go back some time.

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The Liberty Bell

We had a day out in Philly on Saturday to celebrate my birthday.  Last year I chose to visit a historic cemetery and this year I decided we should consume more local history.  I thought it was entirely ridiculous that I had been living in the suburbs of Philadelphia for four years now (as of 17 October) yet had never been to see the Liberty Bell or been inside Independence Hall.  That, therefore, was my selection for the first part of my birthday trip.

The lines to get in to see the Liberty Bell – part of the Independence Historic Site – were long but not as ridiculously long as they have been on other occasions when we have considered viewing it.  We, therefore, joined the line and found that it moved at a reasonable pace.  We all had to remove layers of clothing and place our possessions in boxes to be scanned for security purposes but, even so, it only took about half an hour between joining the queue and being allowed to go and view the bell.  There were displays outlining the bell’s history, its symbolism, and how it has been cared for and restored.  The boys had zero interest in lingering long enough to read so Mr Pict and I had to skim and scan.

The bell is, of course, famous for its crack.  This appeared as soon as it was rung for the first time in Philadelphia.  Poor workmanship it seems.  It was recast a couple of times by men whose names – Pass and Stow – appear on the bell and then the bell cracked to the extent it appears now in the 19th Century.  It was probably one of the bells that was rung when the Declaration of Independence was read publicly for the first time on 8 July 1776 but really the rest of its history was pretty insignificant.  Its real importance emerges from its symbolism, particularly for the abolitionist movement.  Its use as a symbol is really why I wanted to see it: the bell is used all over the place locally and nationally so I thought I had really better see the real thing.

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After our visit to the Liberty Bell, the plan was to go and explore Independence Hall.  However, all of the tickets for the day were already gone.  Completely bad planning on our part.  Tsk tsk.  We will have to return another time.  We, therefore, had to content ourselves with the adjacent Old City Hall.  Its significance rests in the fact that it housed the Supreme Court until the nation’s capital was relocated to Washington DC.  We had a quick gander and then we moved on.

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Sticking with the theme of America’s founding, our next pit stop was to see the grave of Benjamin Franklin.  There was a charge, however, to enter Christ Church Burial Ground.  Despite the modest fee, we decided not to pay so I had to content myself with a glimpse through the railings.  Oh dear.  Our planning for the day was really not going too well at all.  Happily none of this was the main event for my birthday day out.

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Mirror Maze and Fountain Frolics

The youngest two Pictlings returned from their trip to Maine with their grandparents.  Then it was time for the oldest two to head off on their vacation with their grandparents.  They are visiting New Orleans and taking a cruise around the coasts of Mexico, Belize and Honduras.  Lucky ducks.  Mr Pict and I are, therefore, experiencing having only two children at home again.

We took a weekend trip into Philly to visit the Franklin Institute.  The older boys have become a bit lukewarm when it comes to return visits to the Franklin Institute so it made sense to grab the opportunity to just take the other two.  I have never seen the building so empty and quiet.  It was an absolute pleasure to wander around without the noise and the crowds, without having to wait for a turn on some piece of equipment.

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There is a special exhibition on at the moment that is all about numbers and patterns in nature.  The boys loved all of the interactive elements.  They were able to identify the same spirals, tessellations, and ratios in different photographic images, play with computer generated images of branching and the geometry in mountain ranges.  There was a metal casting of an ant nest that was beautiful and fascinating and a section of a beehive.  It was my kind of mathematics.

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The centrepiece of the exhibition was a mirror maze.  It was constructed from floor to ceiling mirror panels and LED light strips in the floor creating triangular shapes in the floor.  It was so much fun to wander around in it.  The maze had been cleverly crafted so that the different angles of the mirrors created optical illusions.  At one point, my youngest son was split in half on different sides of the corridor.  It was genuinely tricky to find our way around the maze too.  We hit many dead ends.  The dead ends, however, were also fun.  Pressure pads in the floor made screens appear in the mirror panels that informed us about patterns and repetitions in nature.  We went around the maze several times because it didn’t get boring at all.

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We then watched an IMAX movie about extreme weather.  The documentary was great and the IMAX screen made the photography even more immersive.  We could actually feel dwarfed by the glacier that was breaking into the sea and could feel the threat of the impending tornado.  After that, we asked the boys to select a few areas of the Franklin Institute that they were keen to visit on this trip.  The advantage of being members is that we don’t feel the pressure to do the whole museum from top to toe each time and can instead cherry pick.  We, therefore, visited the space section where they got to try on virtual reality headsets and touch another fragment of the meteor that came from Meteor Crater.  We also visited the Heart section where they enjoyed climbing around in the chambers of the heart and listen to the heartbeats of different creatures.  They also had fun in the electricity section, creating circuits by connecting hands and getting electrical shocks from a key.

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After the Franklin Institute we headed across the street to Logan Circle.  While I have walked and driven past it many times, this was our first visit to Logan Circle – also called Logan Square, confusingly enough.  It is basically a small park in the middle of a roundabout (traffic circle).  We read on a placard in the park that this was the site of the Great Sanitary Fair.  This was an 1864 event to raise funds for medicines for the Union troops.  Abraham Lincoln contributed by donating signed copies of the Emancipation Proclamation.  Apparently the public address he gave that day was the only one he delivered in Philadelphia.  At the centre of the circle is an impressive fountain, the Swann Memorial Fountain.  The Fountain was designed by Alexander Calder – the Philadelphia sculptor whose father designed City Hall and who was the father of Alexander Calder of the kinesthetic sculptures.  It features three massive figures each representing the rivers of the city – the Schuylkill, Wissahickon, and Delaware – and turtles, frogs, fish, and swans.  There are geysers spouting high up into the air.  It’s a pretty cool fountain.

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Of course, the kids didn’t give a stuff about all that history.  They were just interested in the water.  There were lots of people playing in the fountain, both wading and swimming, and my boys were keen to join in.  We were not sure if frolicking in the water was permitted.  There was no sign prohibiting entering the water, as is often the case with off-limits fountains, so we decided to let them get in.  It turns out that there was a brief ban on entering the fountain but it is now allowed so we were OK.  The boys loved wading around in the water and wandered all over the place.  I decided to join them, though I avoided getting as wet as they did.  They loved the spouting turtle and frog figures and had an absolute blast playing, splashing, and giggling.  Now I am keen to visit more of Philly’s fountains and public art.

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The Barnes Foundation

While the youngest two Pictlings were vacationing with their grandparents, Mr Pict and I took (dragged) the oldest two into Philadelphia to visit the Barnes Foundation.  Our 11 year old and I love art and love to visit art galleries whereas Mr Pict and the 14 year old tolerate art galleries.  Somehow we all ended up united in not much enjoying our experience of the Barnes Foundation.

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The Barnes Foundation is essentially the large art collection of one particular individual, a pharmaceutical tycoon named Albert Barnes.  He wanted his collection to be educational so opened it to students and gradually, over the decades and through much controversy, it became open to the public.  Numbers entering the galleries are limited so when we arrived we expected to be given a timed ticket but instead we were told we could go right on in.  We were simply lucky, however, as when we left there was a long line of people waiting to gain admission.  I actually like the idea of limiting numbers as I have had dire experiences in overcrowded art museums, including the Louvre.

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Barnes, it appears, was a bit of a control freak.  I get that because I am one too. It would seem that a condition of his collection being available for public access was that the items be displayed exactly as he stipulated.  Therefore, each room of the gallery is presented exactly as he wanted – with decorative iron work being displayed alongside the paintings and drawings – which means it is organised according to his taste rather than any sort of curation based on art history or chronology or theme.  I found this frustrating.  Usually I engage my children in art galleries by having them draw studies of what they are viewing.  They really enjoy doing that.  Alas, the Barnes Foundation does not permit drawing.  Therefore, desperately trying to engage my children in what they were seeing, I was trying to discuss the art work with them, drawing comparisons, looking for the stylistic flourishes and techniques that made it easy to identify which artist’s work we were looking at.  This was made incredibly difficult by the somewhat haphazard way the paintings were organised.  They were also, in my opinion, all hung too closely together so that no piece had breathing room.  The paintings were not labelled – since there was no wall space between them for a label – but there were handy diagrammatic maps available in each room.  We saw a plethora of Renoirs, Cezannes, and Matisses.  There were also works by Modigliani, Picasso, Degas, Seurat and Van Gogh.  All of these were artists familiar to the children from me teaching them History of Art a couple of summers ago.  They were also introduced to less familiar artists such as Chaim Soutine, Charles Demuth, and the sculptures of Lipchitz.

Impressive as the collection was for its content, our whole experience at the Barnes was of feeling frustrated, stressed, and hassled.  This was made a whole lot worse by overly officious guides and docents.  Each room had a line built into the wooden floor.  This line designated a point that bodies were not permitted to cross.  Of course, we had to step across the line in order to pass through a doorway.  The occasional portal contained a work of art but heaven forfend if one should pause between rooms to catch a glimpse of the art work in question because, of course, then we were between lines.  At one point, my 11 year old raised his hand to gesture slightly towards a painting we were discussing and a docent leapt up to push his hand back behind the line as if he was about to poke the painting.  I found it off putting but to my sons it crippled any enjoyment they were getting from looking at work by prominent artists.  Furthermore, when I wanted to ascend the staircase to the second floor, a guide who was conducting a tour and who had positioned her group at the bottom of the stairs, was incredibly rude to me for daring to interrupt her talk by walking between her and her group in order to access the stairs.  I was fizzing with frustration at that juncture.  We consequently made quick work of the second floor since we were becoming increasingly annoyed with the entire experience.  What kept us entertained was my 11 year old’s idea that we should pick a painting and make up a narrative about it, the more outlandish the better.  We were all thoroughly amused.  Of course, we drew tuts from a po-faced docent.  Time to depart.

Before we left, however, we popped into a small gallery space for a temporary exhibit.  We almost did not go in because the kids were so hacked off by that point.  We were all glad that we did, however.  The exhibition was about a series of works by an artist named Mohamed Bourouissa inspired by time he spent with a community of horse riders in North Philadelphia.  I had no idea there were people riding horses in Philly for a start but I also found the works themselves to be fascinating and thought-provoking, sculptures made out of old car parts with photographs printed on to them.  It was a really positive end to what had otherwise been a disappointing visit to the Barnes Foundation.

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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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