Return to the Mercer Museum

We were looking for something indoors that we could do on a very hot day that threatened with thunderstorms. The middle two kids were meeting up with friends and that scheduling meant we could not venture too far from home base. I, therefore, suggested the Mercer Museum as my husband and youngest son had never visited. My only previous visit had been in 2017 so I was happy to return.

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The Museum is named for Henry Chapman Mercer and was created to house his vast collections. Mercer had a deep interest in a vast array of pre-industrial trades and tools and the building he commissioned is full of weird shaped rooms and nooks and crannies where he could showcase these according to subject and theme. We learned that the team of men who had constructed the building – from hand-mixed concrete – had been paid about $1.70 for a ten hour day. That is the equivalent of about $5 per hour in contemporary money. Mercer got a right bargain out of that because – to my mind – the building itself is the absolute star of the show.

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I may have unintentionally oversold the experience of this museum to the rest of the family because they were underwhelmed. My husband’s problem is that he compares all eccentric buildings or museums to the Shelburne Museum in Vermont or the House on the Rock in Wisconsin and finds them lacking as a result. As for the kids, I guess they have grown accustomed to interactive exhibits and experiences to capture their interest or some way I have created to engage them. They did enjoy some of the activities designed for kids along the way – despite being 13 and 19 – but they were otherwise a bit checked out. Despite having a bunch of moaners in tow, however, I still loved the place and all of its quirks.

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I will say that visiting a concrete building on an intensely hot day was a challenge in and of itself. I often felt as if I was exploring the interior of a pizza oven. The fans became very welcome and appreciated waypoints around the building. Temperature control was, I guess, the one real flaw in Mercer’s design.

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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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