The Mercer Museum in Doylestown, Pennsylvania is a dream destination for material culture enthusiasts. Over 40,000 objects from the permanent collection are scattered throughout the six-story concrete structure in exhibition cases, on walls, and even suspended from the ceiling.
Henry Chapman Mercer oversaw the design and construction of the Mercer Museum from 1913 to 1916. Mercer, a historian and archaeologist, had a profound interest in preserving America’s early social and cultural heritage. The museum, “…is one of the world’s most comprehensive portraits of pre-Industrial American material culture.” By conducting object analysis of these artifacts, guests could comprehend how societies lived and provided for themselves. Furthermore, guests could engage with these objects in a new way. Mercer wanted visitors to understand what he referred to as “Historic Human Tools.” He divided the collection into two parts; as objects needed for basic human survival (food, clothing, and shelter) versus secondary items used for entertainment, communication, and government.
According to the museum, Mercer started to amass his collection in 1897. Not only did he acquire the artifacts, but he also recorded oral histories from craftsmen on how these various utilitarian tools were used. More than sixty American trades are represented throughout the building in rooms which vary in shape and size.
I jotted down the word “overwhelming” in my notes from this museum visit. I entered the building with only a basic understanding of Henry Mercer and the purpose of the institution. The display cases become increasingly repetitive after you breeze by the first twenty. After all, how many cups and plates can you look at? To be fair, I think I would have found this visit more enjoyable if I was a material culture student on the hunt for an object to analyze for class or a social historian interested in learning about a particular trade. The lack of exhibit labels and the abundance of objects had me skipping from display to display in search of a new item to latch onto.
I did enjoy the innovative prototype exhibition, “Plus Ultra: Awakening the Mercer Core.” Here, guests are encouraged to interact with a sampling of artifacts that are traditionally not on display. It enables visitors to take a closer look at these artifacts and contemplate their shared uses and values. If you have trouble choosing an object the exhibit provides colorful coasters with images of an item that guests are asked to seek out.
Lastly, I have to mention my other favorite aspect of the museum, an interactive map of the Mercer Mile. Guests can pick up stylus and click on the Mercer Museum, Fonthill Castle, or the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works to gain more information about the buildings. Be on the lookout for Mercer’s dog Rollo who continuously runs around the edge of the map. One of my favorite “welcome areas” thus far in a museum.
Stay tuned for a future Mary’s Musings post on Fonthill Castle!
“About.” Mercer Museum and Fonthill Castle.
Mercer Museum Beginnings Exhibit. Mercer Museum and Fonthill Castle.
Pitts, Carolyn. “Fonthill, Mercer Museum, and Moravian Pottery and Tile Works.” National Register of Historic Places Inventory/ Nomination Form. History Division NPS, Washington D.C., August 10, 1984.
Rosenheck, Mabel. “Mercer Museum.” Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia. 2020.
*All photographs were taken by the author*