Exhibit Review: A Look Inside the Mercer Museum

by Keeley Tulio

(All photos were taken by the reviewer)

Located in the heart of Bucks County, the Mercer Museum of Doylestown stands as a staple of local history. Henry Mercer, a Doylestown native, historian, archaeologist, and the owner of the Fonthill Castle and Moravian Pottery and Tile Works, founded the museum in 1916. According to the museum’s website, Mercer compiled this historic collection to “preserve the outmoded material of daily life in America before it was swept away by the Industrial Revolution.”[1] The towering castle houses all of the nearly forty thousand items that Mercer collected for this goal. Currently operated by the Bucks County Historical Society, the museum’s collections represent a cohesive view of American trades and industry before the mechanization of the Industrial Revolution took over. Yet the utilization of the physical space of the building and the museum’s programming could be restructured to support a better understanding of the collections.

The Mercer Museum is open every day of the week year-round to self-guided exploration of the collections amassed by Mercer. This review was based off a self-guided tour of the museum’s permanent exhibitions. A newer entranceway/gallery space was added to the original building of the museum in the early 2000s. This addition holds the admissions desk, the store, and a space for a rotating exhibit. The only option for examining the exhibits of the museum was a self-guided tour. The museum contains a map with a list of each trade displayed on every floor, as well as a family-orientated scavenger hunt activity for the different levels. The museum also offers an audio tour, for an extra price, that elaborated on certain displays from all the floors.

The physical structure of the building is quite daunting to visitors. The concrete castle stands at seven stories tall, with each floor housing different aspects of the collections. The general layout of the building is that the center of the first six floors feature an open atrium with smaller alcoves and niches along the edges. Many of the alcoves are smaller rooms with large glass windows and doorways that give visitors access to the displays encased inside there. The center of the atrium is by far the most breathtaking aspect of the museum. The inner atrium and winding staircases are lined with larger objects, suspended in the air at the edge of the floor or hung from the ceiling. Mercer deliberately designed his museum so that the larger objects, like the boats and stagecoaches, would be suspended in this atrium space.[2] The suspension of the objects continues to wind up the building all the way to the atrium’s ceiling, with cradles, desks, and chairs all hanging down from there.

Mercer 2

As visitors travel up the floors of the castle, they encounter around fifty smaller exhibit displays of trades and objects from the eighteenth and nineteenth century. The alcoves and display cases are not a uniform set of cases, as some range in size from a small closet while others are the size of a standard classroom. It appears that Mercer tried to organize these trade displays by theme or type of production, but this organizational method is uncompleted or more random in some areas. An example of this disorganization is the second and third floors. The second floor contains displays of food production: butter & diary, meat preservation, and fruit preservation. The second floor also contains an instructional display on printing and a physical printing press, though the instructional display and press are far removed from each other. However, the third floor displayed a case on engraving, a type of printing that utilized tin sheets, wood blocks, or copperplates as the blocks for printing. The display included print examples of how engravings were used in media like Harper’s Weekly. This engraving case was disconnected from both the printing displays on the second floor and the tin-smithing display across the third floor.

Mercer 3

Though there was no true continuity of content across the physical layout, visitors engaged and enjoyed Mercer’s layout of the museum. Groups of all ages enjoyed walking in to marvel at the objects dangling from the atrium and ceiling that quickly attracted the eye. Visitors had no issues finding the displays lining the edges of the atrium as they traveled up the building. One pair of visitors even remarked that these displays were like “little window shops of history.”  The cases were enclosed with exhibit panels on the outside of the glass that explained how the processes of that created the specific objects or trades would have worked. The exhibit panels were very informative and helpful, but not every display had a panel to describe the craft or trade.

While the museum focused on accurately representing the everyday lives of Americans and their trades prior to 1850, there was little mention of individual people in the trades. The finished products of the trades garnered the most attention at each case. For example, the finished prints along the wall of the engraving display were far more eye catching than the tools used to produce the engravings. The exhibit panels for each trade case describe what each tool would have been used to produce the final products, yet the exhibits made little mention of the people that would have been performing the labor behind these trades. The goal of the museum to present an accurate view of the average American lifestyle prior to the Industrial Revolution would now be identified as an exhibit in social history. The absence of the people performing the labor hinders this goal.

The use of first-person interpreters could help bring the focus back onto the individuals that performed the trades exhibited and not just the objects they produced. The museum did not have any interpreters at the time of my visit. It would be interesting and perhaps more engaging if the Mercer Museum brought in some interpreters that specialize in the historic trades displayed in the building. Families and visitors might enjoy seeing interpreters in authentic dress and manners demonstrating how to weave fabric or work as a blacksmith. The use of first-person interpreters could better help the museum’s goal of illustrating what life was like for the average American during the eighteenth and nineteenth century.

The results for this review were only drawn from one self-guided tour of the museum. The information on the museum map and the webpage produced by the Bucks County Historical Society furthered informed this review as well as the visit through the museum space. The museum displays diverse aspects of American life prior to 1850; from food production to pottery to clock making to weaponry, the Mercer Museum has a display on each. The museum meets its goal, yet the physical organization could be arranged to better connect similar trades. While it is a museum on the history of American trades prior to the Industrial Revolution, the Mercer most stands out for its quirky design and displays, most evident in the suspended objects. Visitors won’t leave with many questions about American crafts but will wonder why there were desks suspended from the ceiling.

[1] “Mercer Museum,” Mercer Museum & Fonthill Castle, the Bucks County Historical Society.

https://www.mercermuseum.org/about/mercer-museum/.

[2] “Mercer Museum,” Mercer Museum & Fonthill Castle, the Bucks County Historical Society.

https://www.mercermuseum.org/about/mercer-museum/.

“Public Disclosures of Private Realities: LGBTQ History and the Archive of Everyday Life”

(by Keeley Tulio)

On November 28th, Villanova’s Department of Gender and Women’s Studies hosted Visiting Assistant Professor Dr. Stephen Vider of Bryn Mawr College. Vider received his Ph.D. in American Studies from Harvard University, focused on the politics and social practices of everyday life in the United States with attention to gender and sexuality. After receiving his doctorate at Harvard, Vider dived into several public history projects. As an Andrew W.  Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at the Museum of New York City, he curated the exhibition AIDs at Home: Art and Everyday Activism in 2017. Vider’s presentation “Public Disclosures of Private Realities: LGBTQ History and the Archive of Everyday Life” revolved around his work on queer domestic spaces and the source base he used to create an exhibit on domestic activism.

While previous scholarship prioritized the actions of the LGBTQ community in public spaces, Vider turned to examine domestic space. In his book Queer Belongings: Gender, Sexuality, and the American Home After World War II, Vider examines the home as the site of contact between class conflict and LGBTQ identity. A person’s sense of being part of their nation was demonstrated by performing and adopting domestic roles that developed in the 1950s. With this, members of the LGBTQ community adapted this domesticity of the home to form their own sense of belonging within American culture. The book examines the political meaning of home for the LGBTQ community in shaping this sense of belonging.

The AIDs at Home exhibit continued to examine the domestic sphere of LGTBQ in another political meaning, activism. Vider wanted to dispel the stigmas that surrounded AIDs victims and their domestic life in conversation with other contemporary exhibits that revisited the AIDs crisis. Because he believed that this new attention on the AIDs crisis continued to obscure the impact of the nonphysical and more private responses of LGBTQ activism, Vider wanted to expand on his examination of LGBTQ domesticity in connection to the New York AIDs crisis. In the domestic sphere there was a place for activism, new definitions of family, and social support. The exhibit further focused to reorient the topic of activism to focus on care in the domestic space as a critical site of queer activism. To display this, the exhibit moved thematically around four parts of domestic activism: “Caretaking,” “Housing,” “Family,” and “HIV/AIDs at Home Today.”

The “Caretaking” theme focused on the relationship of AIDs victim and caretakers, a role filled with a variety of people from friends and family to members of a caregiving program. The caretaker role served as a method of activism against the stigma with AIDs that resulted in avoidance of physical contact with AIDs victims. Loved ones, friends, and volunteers in organizations combated this stigma by their role of caretaking in the private, domestic space as evident in the photograph Kachin and Michael at Michael’s Apartment. The first part of the exhibit prominently displayed pieces of artwork, on canvas or photographs, to display the different methods of caretaking.

The second and third themes of the exhibit featured the notions of “Housing” and “Family” as activism. Housing as a form of activism was a response to the rise of homelessness among those suffering from HIV/AIDs in New York City. To illustrate this, Vider used architectural drawings and plans as well as a documentary of people displaced by the HIV/AIDs crisis. Much of the homeless crisis that arose from AIDs was due to evictions that were caused when one partner died from AIDs and the other was not named on the lease. These evictions were not reflective of how members of the LGBTQ community defined their own households and family. The theme of housing flowed directly into the notion of chosen family, the third theme of the exhibit. Family was redefined to mean chosen family instead of blood relations as a form of activism. The chosen family section also featured a short video called “Two Men and A Baby” that symbolically redefined family by following a black gay couple that was raising their nephew, a child born with AIDS whose mother passed away.

The last theme of the exhibit, “HIV/AIDs at Home Today,” moved to display how HIV & AIDs are experienced today. This ended with a short film codirected by Vider, A Place in the City: Three Stories about AIDs at Home, which followed the work of three activists in New York City that mirrored the previous themes of the exhibit. HIV and AIDs still affect people and with that there is no true end for the exhibit. The experience of HIV and AIDs at home is ongoing and therefore domestic activism, as Vider has defined it with the themes of his exhibit, continues.

AIDs at Home presents a deeply personal view of the history of AIDS in New York City with a source base that accurately reflects that personal history. Vider primarily focused his efforts on establishing what he termed an “archive of everyday life” to be the source base for the exhibit. It used pieces of archival materials and artwork to capture the history of the emotional experience of the repeated caregiving that happened for AIDs victims in domestic spaces. The exhibit features archival documents like membership lists, architectural plans, and medication lists but in relation to representational pieces of art. Putting the archive together for the exhibit involved working with a variety of people, from the artists themselves to members of LGBTQ support organizations to families of victims from the AIDs crisis. This process was not easy because many active and ongoing organizations do not keep up with archiving their papers. Similarly, families that lost a loved one to AIDS can be motivated by grief to get rid of the victim’s belongings and papers.

“Public Disclosures of Private Realities” offered insights in new methods of examining LGBTQ history. Vider wanted the audience to rethink how everyday history is created, to rethink where history happens or how history happens or when. This reorientation of how everyday history is created can lead to a reexamination of the narratives of history. For Vider this meant the change of examining the AIDs crisis as a medical narrative of great change to a domestic narrative that shows the continuity of everyday life. The presentation and Vider left the audience with an encouragement to look at the narratives of history and reexamine them in a new light or with different sources.