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Mercer Museum History
By 1897 handmade objects were being discarded in favor of new machine-made goods. Historian and archaeologist Henry Mercer (1856-1930) recognized the need to collect and preserve the outmoded material of daily life in America before it was swept away by the Industrial Revolution. Mercer gathered almost 30,000 items ranging from hand tools to horse-drawn vehicles and assembled this encyclopedic collection in a system of his own devising. To enhance the collection’s educational value, and to share it with the public, Mercer decided to design and build a museum to display the artifacts.
Redware exhibit In 1916, Mercer erected a 6-story concrete castle. The towering central atrium of the Museum was used to hang the largest objects such as a whale boat, stage coach and Conestoga wagon. On each level surrounding the court, smaller exhibits were installed in a warren of alcoves, niches and rooms according to Mercer’s classifications – healing arts, tinsmithing, dairying, illumination and so on. The end result of the building is a unique interior that is both logical and provocative. It requires the visitor to view objects in a new way.
As gifts to the Bucks County Historical Society, the collection and building were maintained by the trustees without benefit of professional staff until 1971. With a resurgence of interest in early American crafts, an ambitious program to develop and promote the Mercer Museum as an institution of national significance was then undertaken. The Museum has made major advances in collections management and care, exhibitions and interpretation bringing the Museum in line with contemporary standards while, at the same time, respecting the historical integrity of the site. In 1985, the Mercer Museum was recognized as a National Historic Landmark and achieved subsequent accreditation by the American Association of Museums in 2005.
Family viewing stoveplate collection The Board of Trustees successfully completed a Capital Campaign in 1994 to address restoration needs. The Museum announced in October 2006 a $10M Capital Campaign for expanded exhibit and program space. Mercer’s collection and museum are enjoyed annually by more than 65,000 visitors from around the world. The collection has grown to some 40,000 objects. Among museum professionals, technology scholars, and tool collectors, the collection is considered to be the most complete of its kind in America. Interactive programs provide insights into early American history in enjoyable and educational ways, and changing exhibits provide a reason for visitors to return.
Built between 1908-1912, Fonthill was the home of Henry Chapman Mercer (1856-1930). Archaeologist, anthropologist, ceramist, scholar and antiquarian, Mercer built Fonthill both as his home and as a showplace for his collection of tiles and prints. The first of three Mercer buildings in Doylestown, Fonthill served as a showplace for Mercer’s famed Moravian tiles that were produced during the American Arts & Crafts Movement. Designed by Mercer, the building is an eclectic mix of Medieval, Gothic, and Byzantine architectural styles, and is significant as an early example of poured reinforced concrete.
Upon his death in 1930, Mercer left his concrete “Castle for the New World” in trust as a museum of decorative tiles and prints. He gave life rights to Fonthill to his housekeeper and her husband, Laura and Frank Swain. In accordance with Mercer’s Will, Mrs. Swain resided in the house and conducted occasional tours until her death in 1975. Upon her death, the Trustees of the Mercer Fonthill Museum determined to operate Fonthill as a historic house museum and contracted with the Bucks County Historical Society to provide professional care and management. In 1990, the Bucks County Orphans court appointed the Trustees of the Bucks County Historical Society as the permanent Trustees of the Mercer Fonthill Museum thus solidifying the commitment to professionalism at the site. Fonthill Museum remains a separate legal entity from the Historical Society.
From 1976 to the present, Fonthill has evolved into a unique professional museum that provides a full range of museum programs related to Mercer and his collections while maintaining a strong commitment to the preservation and conservation of the building and its collections. In 1985, Fonthill was designated a National Historic Landmark; the site achieved subsequent accreditation by the American Association of Museums in 2005. Today, Fonthill attracts over 30,000 visitors annually from nearly every state and more than 35 foreign countries. It has been featured in numerous print and electronic media including the Arts & Entertainment Network’s popular “America’s Castles” series. Fonthill is one of the original associate sites of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Historic Artists’ Homes and Studios program.
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