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The Collection in the Castle: A Trip to the Mercer Museum

“Bucks County Historical Society’s Museum Exhibit Declared Greatest in World,” declares one newspaper headline. The year is 1916, and the avid ceramicist and gentleman archaeologist Henry C. Mercer has just completed the construction of the museum that will eventually bear his name. Almost a century later, can the Mercer Museum’s exhibits still lay claim to being the greatest?

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Fonthill, the home of Henry C. Mercer. Photo by James Loesch via Flickr.

About an hour north of Philadelphia lies the quaint suburban enclave of Doylestown. Like many smaller Pennsylvania towns, you will find find lawyers milling about the courthouse and antique-hunting tourists ambling along the shop-lined streets. However, one thing that sets Doylestown apart is the castle that sits just off the town’s main drag. This 6-story fortress built entirely out of concrete would not be totally out of place in the late-Middle Ages, but instead of housing royalty, it contains one of the world’s most extensive collections of pre-Industrial tools.

It is difficult to prepare for the Mercer Museum. To say that the collection of tools in a rural Pennsylvania castle threw me off my traditional museum-going game would be a bit of an understatement. Fortunately, the museum strives to orient visitors right from the start. As you enter the exhibit space, there is a sign outlining 18 commonly asked questions about the museum, the collection, and the man behind it all; and it directs you to where you can find the answers to these questions in the exhibit. I should have read these questions more closely because one especially — “Why Are Objects Hanging From the Ceiling” — might have prepared me for what lay ahead.

The small entry hallway is lined with ceramic tiles depicting craftsmen at work and brief blurbs of text that attempt to answer the difficult matter of “What is This Place?” Once past these initial display pieces you enter the heart of the museum: a central courtyard with six floors spiraling upward.

Photo by krooooop via Flickr.

This space is so far from the sterile corridors of the modern museum that for a moment you just have to stare. There is stuff everywhere, and yet it is not uncomfortably cluttered. In one sense it is much like a blown-up version of a Victorian cabinet of curiosity, which is to be expected given the era in which Henry Mercer was collecting — 1870s-1920s. In another sense, it seems like a scene fresh out of a Harry Potter film, where the staircases will move on a whim and the figures in paintings flit from frame to frame. Overall, the first glimpse of the space is like a happy gulp of wonder; rarely have I been so magically transported by simply entering a museum exhibit.

After taking a moment to drink it all in, you can finally begin to notice the details. Four floors above you a stagecoach looks out over the bow of a whaling boat complete with harpoons. Just ahead Buffalo Bill presides over an army of carved Indian tobacco shop statues, which according to the label were the most popular advertising signs for such shops for nearly three centuries. Wandering down offshoot alcoves leads you to rooms dedicated to shoemaking, hornblowing, and sheep shearing. There is a glisten off of the rows of redware pottery and furniture hangs from the ceiling above. Visit the old printing press or spend some time with the gathering of meat preservation tools before passing the galloping weathervanes on your ascent. Looking closely at the patterns used for creating wallpaper and discovering just how poorly modern plastics are at recreating the uniqueness of tortoiseshell combs are just a sampling of the tidbits of knowledge that can be acquired amid the warren-like maze of the Mercer Museum.

By the time I reached the sixth floor and encountered an old hearse, I felt as if I was an accidental walk-on in a unpublished Gothic novel, sneaking around in an old English attic with Mr. Rochester about to pop out behind the next bend in the wall. And that is the funny thing about this museum. A collection of tools sounds like a rather dry subject on paper, but at the Mercer, with the objects arranged in a haphazardly organized method in this quirky castle built specifically to be their home, it is transformed into an almost romantic experience.

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To “cultivate…a broad appreciation and awareness of the past, helping people find stories and meanings that both sustain them in the present and aid them in approaching the future.” Such are the aims of the Mercer Museum, which they share with their larger parent organization: the Bucks County Historical Society. As far as mission statements go, it falls far short of capturing the essence of this curious castle-bound collection. Where does the Mercer fit in the greater pantheon of museums, and why is it important to still go see this odd assortment of pre-Industrial tools of trade?

Nostalgia, that much maligned and yet celebrated practice of longing for the past through rose-tinted glasses, is certainly a small part of this collection’s appeal. There are some elements of kitsch. But, this journey to the past that Henry Mercer carefully created is so much more than that. Through the rooms of old confectionary molds, basketweaving braids, and cider presses you can see the effort that was required to create every aspect of human consumption. The sheer ease of our present-day lives is revealed amid these assemblies of typesetting tools and door hinges. In a world of DIY craziness, the Mercer Museum is an avenue for visiting a time when needlepoint was more than just a hobby and when home repairs required more than just a weekend trip to Loew’s.

However, the museum is not finger-wagging its visitors for living in a post-Industrial age. Rather, the Mercer is one giant opportunity to find connections between the shared past on display and the very personal experiences that each visitor carries with them. Looking at the old tobacco shop statues reminded me of a family trip that we took to Wall Drug when I was seven, and I could not help but notice that the bundles of metal strips in the tinsmithing area were reminiscent of the color swatches I used to decide what color to paint my bedroom as we prepared to sell my childhood home. The Mercer Museum challenges you to look at these “everyday” items in a new way, enables you to make almost instinctual connections with the objects in the collection, and provides a time warp between the distant past, the recent past, the present, and the future.

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So, almost a century after its opening, can the Mercer Museum live up to the boastful claims of that newspaper headline from 1916: is this the greatest exhibit in the world? Well, no. In a world where new museums pop up every minute and the latest blockbuster exhibit rolls through every three months, it seems increasingly difficult for any exhibit to lay claim to that title. The museum world has changed drastically since the early days of the 20th Century. At the Mercer there are no high-tech interactives, this quirky collection of tools will never be the latest high profile exhibit on a world tour. Rather, it is in the running for another sort of title all together: most unique exhibit. There is an authenticity to this castle in the country, a very present sense of identity that runs through the concrete walls of the Mercer Museum that makes this collection stand out from all the rest.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A Fierce Palpitation

Photo by dospaz via Flickr.

Have you ever been truly moved by a piece of art? Perhaps it “spoke” to you on a personal level, or maybe it was so beautiful it simply took your breath away? You may have written about it in your diary or on your blog, it might have been a topic of discussion with friends over lunch, or it may have caused you to run to the gift shop and demand a reproduction. Regardless of your reaction, you no doubt were able to move on with your life.

Some people are not so lucky, though. Those who suffer from hyperkulturemia can be thrown into a full psychosomatic outbreak upon encountering a particularly beautiful work of art. Symptoms include dizziness and an increased heartbeat, which can lead to fainting and hallucinations; a victim is left feeling confused, for lack of a better word.

Hyperkulturemia, otherwise known as Stendhal or Florence Syndrome, draws it origins from the writings of Henri-Marie Beyle, a French author who went by the nom de plume of Stendhal. Beyle was on an Italian tour, when he found himself in the hallowed halls of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence in 1817. As he was taking in the priceless works of art, he began to feel faint from the beauty of it all. Once recovered, he documented his spell for all to read about. Nevertheless, it took over 160 years for this phenomenon to acquire an actual diagnosis, when in 1979 Italian psychiatrist Graziella Magherini published her case studies of her first-hand observations of Stendhal Syndrome at work.

So, if you find yourself before a particularly beautiful piece of art and are “seized with a fierce palpitation of the heart,” you may be suffering from Stendhal Syndrome. But, we advise you seek medical attention just in case.

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No Dragons Allowed in the Galleries

Photo by d'n'c via Flickr.

This museum manners video from the Milwaukee Art Museum is really well done…

Museum Manners at the Milwaukee Art Museum

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Standing Guard

Photo by David Reber's Hammer Photography via Flickr.

Photo by David Reber's Hammer Photography via Flickr.

Over at Start Me Up, they’ve been discussing the role that a museum security guard can play in a visitor’s experience. You should check it out.

Have you had any good or bad encounters with a museum security guard that really affected your visit?

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Up Stairs, Down Stairs

Photo by wmliu.

Photo by wmliu.

The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, otherwise known as the Musee des Beaux-Arts de Montreal, is a lovely museum. It houses an impressive collection of over 35,000 objects (including a rather wonderful replica of the Duomo in Florence) and is the site of one of the largest art thefts in Canada (it has gone unsolved for almost 40 years). But, it is not the artwork (although Tissot’s October was particularly eye-catching) nor any of the museum’s buildings (which include a Maxwell brothers-designed Beaux-Arts structure and it’s distinctly more modern neighbor across the street) that made the largest impression on me this past weekend. Rather, it was the stairs of the Desmarais Pavilion that left me mesmerized and a little bit dizzy.

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These stairs have very little incline between them, and their spacing forces you to solve a real life logic puzzle. Essentially, what is the most efficient method of ascending this staircase? Stepping on each step would feel like a lifetime, not to mention throw off your gait. I eventually settled for the two steps at a time approach on the way up, which was a feat given my short legs. The descent, however, required a change in strategy: one stair, two stairs, one stair, two stairs, etc. I have never been so engrossed by a set of stairs with the exception of the ones at the Science Museum in St. Paul, Minnesota, where your feet tap out a little melody of sounds as you climb up and down.

Have you ever been to a museum where an architectural feature really impacted your visit (in a positive or negative way)?   


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Glassworks

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Spotlight on Seattle Series: Part 3

Dale Chihuly is a big name in the art world. His glass sculptures have been featured in exhibits around the globe: the Corning Museum of Glass (NYC), the de Young (San Francisco), Franklin Park Conservatory (Columbus, Ohio), Victoria and Albert Museum (London), the MCM Grand Casino (Macau), and the Tower of David (Jerusalem) to name a few.

However, being well-known comes with a fair degree of criticism. His works have been noted for walking the line between art and craft. Some, like Kenneth Baker of the San Francisco Chronicle, claim his glassworks are too showy, that they lack the substance of serious art: “Perhaps dreamy color, glossy surfaces and flamboyant design – the signal qualities of Chihuly’s work – should be enough. But in a culture where only intellectual content still distinguishes art from knickknacks, they are not.”

Another commenter suggested that there is something vital in Chihuly’s work: “I’m not going to make a case that Chihuly is a great artist (how many deserve to be called that?) but I do make the case that it’s of some importance to consider his art seriously. Why? Because Chihuly is a leading proponent of the idea that art is still about beauty — that the search for the pure, the ideal, is still essential to the role of the artist.”

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For what my opinion is worth, I think Chihuly’s work is captivating. Is there some deeper meaning behind those vibrant colors, impossible shapes, and glistening glass? Maybe yes, maybe no. Although  Navajo baskets, Italian art deco, and Japanese glass fishing floats have all been sited as inspiration for various series. But his sculptures are appealing like a bright, shiny object, and there is something to be said for art that appeals to your inner raccoon or magpie. There is definitely a place for distraction and the blatantly beautiful in the art world – it’s not earth-shattering, but it’s worth a look.

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Love him or hate him, here is a little more information on Dale Chihuly:

  • 1941: Chihuly was born Tacoma, Washington.
  • After beginning his college life at the College of the Puget Sound, Chihuly soon moved on to the University of Washington, the institution from which he received a BA in interior design in 1965. Subsequent degrees followed, including a Master of Science in sculpture from the University of Wisconsin and a Master of Fine Arts from the Rhode Island School of Design.
  • He studied under Studio Glass movement leader Harvey K. Littleton.
  • In 1971, he founded the Pilchuck Glass School near Stanwood, Washington. Legendary Seattle art patrons, John Hauberg and Anne Gould Hauberg (daughter of Seattle Art Museum architect Carl F. Gould), provided the necessary support.
  • A serious car accident in 1976 left the artist blind in his left eye. Three years later, Chihuly found himself unable to blow glass on his own following a bodysurfing incident. Hiring others to do the glass blowing, he described his new role as “more choreographer than dancer.”
  • His various studios include The Boathouse (an old racing shell facility) and buildings in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood and Tacoma. These studios serve as meeting places for artists, work spaces, and museums unto themselves.

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SAM I Am

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Ladies and Gentlemen, please allow me to introduce SAM. SAM is a rather handsome octogenarian that has three homes in the Seattle area: a lovely 1933 Art Moderne building in Volunteer Park, a somewhat industrial looking complex on the western edge of Downtown, and an airy waterfront space in Olympic Sculpture Park. He counts Robert Venturi and Carl F. Gould as his favorite architects, and while his particular interests include Asian, African, and Native American art, he always loves when his interesting American and European friends pay him a visit. His favorite restaurant, TASTE, features a revolving seasonal menu with a focus on sustainability and fresh-from-the-market ingredients. Also, SAM is the proud owner of an impressive research library. If you’re in the area, you should pay SAM a visit – he loves new and old visitors alike – all he asks is a suggested donation.

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By now, I am sure that you know that SAM is actually the Seattle Art Museum. In 1931, Dr. Richard E. Fuller, a member of the Seattle Fine Arts Society brokered a partnership with the city of Seattle: if the city promised to maintain the facility, Fuller would donate the funds and a substantial portion of his Japanese and Chinese art collection in order to create the Seattle Art Museum. Two years later, the museum, designed by architect Carl F. Gould (that Art Moderne building we mentioned above), opened to the public. Fuller would go on to serve as director of SAM until 1973, never once collecting a salary.

In 1986, the museum put forth $35 million, which joined a $29.6 million levy agreed to by the city’s taxpayers, toward the construction of a new 150,000 square foot facility. The new building, designed by the firm Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates, was completed in 1991. Described as “seriously whimsical,” Venturi claimed, “We want [the museum] to be pretty…and appeal to children.” Now, whether it is pretty or appealing to children is a matter of opinion, but one thing that catches every Downtown visitor’s eye is the iconic “Hammering Man” sculpture in front of the museum. With its opening, SAM played a significant part in revitalizing Seattle’s downtown.

As the Downtown location opened, the old location in Volunteer Park closed for renovations. It re-opened in 1994 as the Seattle Asian Art Museum. As the name would suggest, SAAM is home to the museum’s extensive Asian art collection, including Japanese screen prints, Chinese marble sculptures, and beautiful ceramics. SAAM also houses the McCaw Foundation Asian Art Library and the Ann P. Wyckoff Teacher Resource Center.

The Olympic Sculpture Park, SAM’s third location, opened in 2007. The nine-acre park, which is enough to qualify as Seattle’s largest green space, occupies the northernmost portion of the city’s seawall and boasts magnificent views of the waterfront. Significant sculptures like Alexander Calder’s Eagle and Richard Serra’s Wake reside here.

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Here are some noteworthy numbers and events in SAM’s history…

  • 300,000 people visited in the museum’s first 6 months in 1933.
  • 1940: SAM’s first “blockbuster,” Japanese works from the collection of Manson F. Backus, draws 73,000 visitors.
  • During World War II, 650 of the museum’s most precious works were transported to Denver for safekeeping.
  • 1944: First large-scale traveling exhibition, “India: It’s Acheivements of the Past and of the Present.”
  • 1959: An exhibit of paintings and drawings by Vincent Van Gogh sees 126, 110 visitors.
  • 1978: “The Treasures of Tutankhamen” charts 1.3 million visitors.
  • 1997: “Leonardo Lives” brings in 236,000 visitors.
  • SAM opened with 1926 items in its collection. As of 2008, the collection was totaled at 25,000 items.

Some exhibits you should definitely not miss…

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It’s Raining Culture in Seattle

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Photo by wonderlane.

Oh, April. Month of many rainfalls. What better way to celebrate this damp month than by highlighting a city known for its rainy reputation: Seattle. That’s right, throughout the month of April, Museumist will cast a spotlight on the exhibits, events, museums, cultural organizations, and the people that make the arts come alive in the Emerald City.

Let’s begin with a brief look at Seattle…

  • Despite its reputation for being perpetually rainy, Seattle receives less rainfall per year than New York City, Atlanta, and Houston. It doesn’t even make the Top 10 Rainiest Cities in the US list! However, while rain might not be falling, it often looks like it’s about to. On average, there are 201 cloudy days a year in Seattle. Strangely enough though, Seattle natives are the greatest purchasers of sunglasses per capita of any American city.
  • Perhaps its all those overcast days or the prevalence of coffee shops, but folks in this city are a literary bunch. The Public Library system here boasts the highest percentage of library card holders per capita in the entire US. Also, a study named Seattle the most literate city in the country.
  • Of course, we’ll have to wait for the 2010 Census numbers, but by the most recent estimation, Seattle counted 602,ooo people as residents, enough to qualify as the 15th largest city in the United States.
  • Notable Seattlites include: Jimi Hendrix, Bruce Lee (buried here), Paul Allen, Bill Gates, Carol Channing, Sir Mixalot, Ron Santo, Adam West, Rainn Wilson, Gypsy Rose Lee, and many more.
  • The National Register of Historic Places claims 150 Seattle sites on its list, including the Ballard Avenue Historic District, the Pike Place Public Market, Chinatown Historic District, various Public Library branches, and a healthy handful of historic homes.

Seattle is a city famous for many things: coffee, grunge rock, technology, environmentalism, and great food to name a few, but here at Museumist we are mainly concerned with the City of Goodwill’s cultural offerings and artistic personalities. So, stay tuned for a deeper look at the museums and related people and places that make this town tick.

Up this week…

The Seattle Art Museum

Dale Chihuly

The Wing Luke Asian Museum

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The Tipping Point

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Over at the American Association of Museums’ Emerging Museum Professionals ListServ, there has been a debate brewing. The issue:

If a museum docent/tour guide/attendant receives a tip from a visitor, should they be allowed to keep it?

I must confess that is not an issue that I had given much thought to before. However, after reading the responses, there have been some interesting arguments raised. Most people agreed that asking for tips lacked class, while some thought tips (whether solicited or not) were completely inappropriate for a museum employee. Someone made an intellectual property argument, and others discussed the possibility of encouraging the tipper to make it a museum donation instead. Ultimately, it seemed that the very reason behind why people choose to work in a museum was at the heart of the debate.

Some interesting highlights include:

  1. “In the museum field we are usually subject to intellectual property rules and that the information you impart on your tour is owned by the museum you work for and therefore tips on such should also go to them.”
  2. “It is reasonable to assume that if a visitor wants to donate to the museum, they will do so (and may have already done so, and in turn will receive the tax deduction they would expect as a donor), and if they want to show appreciation to the guide, they will do that. It is also reasonable to assume the visitor would rather have the control over where the tip goes, and may feel resentment towards a museum that takes tips away from its employees (if they were privy to that knowledge).  So, if a museum values a donor’s intent, they would either let the guide keep the tips, or verbalize the tip-donation practice into the tour at some point.  To do otherwise would be dishonest, so my museum-going sources say.”
  3. “If I had offered someone a tip and they then handed it to the organization they worked for, I would be angry that my money wasn’t given to the person who deserved it. It’s a pretty bogus standard.”
  4. “You are either getting paid to do your tour or you are a volunteer and get personal satisfaction for doing the tour. You should do a good job because you have pride in yourself and your museum. Expecting a tip is like paying for a smile as one blogger put it.”
  5. “It seems rather unethical for a museum to let you accept tips, but then turn around and require you to donate the money back to them. And, tipping is not a matter of who owns the information intellectually, but instead is given for the quality of the delivery of the tour–it doesn’t matter if you had a script, you still have to be personable, accurate, engaging, etc.”
  6. “Generally, the guide is provided the tools (i.e. training) to make the museum “come alive” by the museum educators. Also, if monetary gain is a large incentive for someone, that person may wish to re-evaluate their choice to pursue a career in the museum profession.”
  7. “What is a typical tip? A dollar or two? Let’s not conflate thinking you might be permitted to keep a couple of dollars with being money hungry. I feel like this is a case of museums putting their mission on a pedestal. Workers in other professions can accept tips or expect pay in line with their skill/education level but if you’re a museum professional you have to be doing it for love alone. You can’t even hint you might like to keep your dollar or that you feel like you deserve to be paid well without being told you should reevaluate your priorities.”

I am inclined to agree most with #2, #3, #5, and #7. The idea that museums “own” the information in a tour bothers me a bit. Museums should not operate under the belief that they “own” the information, it is their job to hold items in the public trust and educate the public about those items.  As noted in #2 and #3, if a visitor is aware that they can leave a donation to the museum if they choose, but tip a docent for a particularly excellent experience anyway, that money is meant for the docent, not the museum. Finally, #7 strikes a cord with me, as I am sure it does with a number of underpaid museum employees out there. Yes, being an employee in a museum often means sacrificing financially for a chance to do what you love, but that argument only goes so far. If you did a great job, and a visitor chooses to recognize that, I don’t see anything wrong with that.

In the end, my response would be:

If a museum docent/tour guide/attendant receives a tip from a visitor, they should a) inform the visitor that tips are neither expected nor required and b) that the visitor can offer the tip as a donation to the museum rather than a tip to the individual if they so choose. If the visitor still insists on giving the tip to the docent, then all’s well that end’s well.

What do you think?

Check out what the ladies at Museos Unite think here.

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Who’s on Your List?

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Photo by Torcello Trio

So, I’m not entirely certain what criteria was used to compile this list, but Juxtapoz Magazine has their Top 100 Galleries/Museums. To be accurate, it should be the Top 100 Contemporary Art Galleries/Museums, but it probably goes unsaid given who compiled the list.

Looking through the selections, it seems California-heavy, with at least 40 of the 100 ranked spaces calling the Golden State home. There are some big names on the list including The Louvre (#21), The Museum of Contemporary Art in New York (#12), Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art (#72), and the leaders of the pack SFMOMA (#1) and the Guggenheim (#2) However, it is the small spaces, stores, and galleries around the world that are pushing the creativity envelope that dominate the list.

Some standouts include…

#39: Black Rat Press (London, UK)

#57: Reina Sofia (Madrid, Spain)

#69: Monster Children Gallery (Sydney, Australia)

#95: Contemporary Arts Center (Cincinnati, Ohio)

#86: Museum of Contemporary Art (Detroit, Michigan)

#66: Galeria Animal (Santiago, Chile)

#40: MOCA (Shanghai, China)

#16: Show and Tell Gallery (Toronto, Canada)

What do you think of Juxtapoz’s list? Agree/Disagree? What’s your number one?

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