Looking Back...A Sense of Whimsy Set Mercer Museum Apart (from the 32nd
|The Mercer Museum in Doylestown, Pa.,
looks like a castle and that’s the way it’s supposed to look.
Henry Chapman Mercer (1856-1930), its builder and founder of the
collection the museum houses, was fourteen when his aunt sent him on a six-month
tour of Europe where he fell under the spell of the castles there. The other two
Mercer buildings open to the public, Fonthill and the Moravian Pottery and Tile
Works, have a certain castle-like quality, too. If castles and unusual
collections of just about everything you can think of are your cup of tea, then
the Mercer Museum, built in 1913, should be high on your list of things to see
in Bucks County.
The Castle. Photo: Milton
Rutherford. Courtesy of the Mercer Museum.
|The lobby does not prepare you for what’s
ahead. There’s a glass case holding recent additions to the
collection: a folk art landscape from 1890, a rifle from 1855, a molding
plane with a card dating it sometime between 1790 and 1820. One item,
though, gives you a clue that this may be a pretty quirky collection—that’s
the Cheerios box with a back panel celebrating the Central Bucks High
School Football Championship of 1997. The gift shop is off the lobby—here
you can buy a hand-carved ark complete with animals for $750 or you can
spend 25 cents on a candy stick. The most popular items, according to
one of the women working there, are a $6.50 folk toy and pieces from the
Redware Pottery Collection. The lobby also offers background on the
museum and a place to watch a video that tells you what’s in store
once you leave the ground floor.
The centerpiece of the museum is the
Central Court, up on the next floor. There’s a very apt exhibit just outside
the swinging doors that usher you into the court. It’s a vampire killing kit,
designed, the card says, for “those who travel to little known countries of
Eastern Europe.” The kit contains a pistol with the obligatory silver bullets,
an ivory crucifix, powdered garlic, a wooden stake and a special “serum.” At
first, museum officials believed that the kit was a genuine, if odd, artifact
from the late 19th century. It was later proved to be a 1920s hoax, but once you
push open those doors, Dracula’s castle comes immediately to mind. Mel Brooks
would love the place. Here’s just some of what you see suspended from the
rafters and the side railings when you look up to the ceiling, six levels above
you: a whaling boat, a sleigh, a huge bellows, an old fire truck, butter churns,
chairs, cradles, carriages, a canoe, tables, and examples of every tool you
could imagine (and some you couldn’t.)
The redware collection.
Courtesy of the Mercer Museum.
A view of the ceiling from the
Central Court. Photo: Scott E. Mabry.
Courtesy of the Mercer Museum.
Literature from the museum will tell
you that Mercer’s legacy was a “significant collection of tools and
artifacts that illuminate the history of pre-industrial America to c. 1850.”
That may well be true, but it is also a significant collection of just about
anything that interested Mercer, and that seems to be everything.
Ringing the Central Court, on each of
the floors, are what look like old shops, rather than the standard museum cases.
You look in the windows of these shops to see the exhibits, which are well
lighted and clearly and succinctly described in the cards on the walls.
There’s a sense of whimsy about the place that is a pleasant change from the
usual dry-as-dust atmosphere in a museum.
On a table near one of the “stores”
there is a case with a sign identifying the contents as “Obsolete Artifacts,
circa 1991.” The contents include a black dial phone and a 45 RPM record.
Since Mercer was an archaeologist as
well as a collector, builder, lawyer, and architect, the artifacts include
things that he found interesting even if they are not American; e.g., 19th
century brass candlesticks and needle cases from England, a West African
two-stringed musical instrument.
Engrossed, you can bet this family
didn't finish their tour in an hour. Scott E. Mabry. Courtesy of the
|Where would the average visitor linger?
According to one of the staff, it depends on your interests. Household items?
Try the exhibits on combs and buttons and the tools for making tortoise shell
ornaments. Kitchen utensils? Chances are you had no idea of the variety of
potato mashers, cheese molds, pitchers or pottery or what was used to make these
things. If presses are your hobby, there’s a flatbed printing press from 1830
and an enormous fruit press designed to produce wine and preserves.
There are cases full of pretty pale
green glass bottles, a number of decanters, and what looks like an early mason
jar. There’s a fragment from the Old North Bridge in Concord, Mass., and a
statue of Buffalo Bill, minus his left arm and right hand. There’s also a
|You can learn about making dairy items,
how to preserve meat and fruit, what a country store looked like. A partial list
of subjects not mentioned here includes exhibits on shoemaking, architectural
hardware, hats, pewter, wallpaper and fabric printing, tin ware, threshing,
harvesting, coopering, and tanning and leatherworking. Obviously, the phrase
“something for everyone” is not a cliché at the Mercer Museum. The women at
the desk will tell you it takes between an hour and an hour-and-a-half to do the
entire tour. If you can get through the Mercer Museum in that time, you’re not