Oct. 17, 2019

By Rafael SM Paniagua

Ten students from Prof. Rafael SM Paniagua’s course on Museums, Archives, and Audiences in Modern Spain (SPA382/HUM384/ART382) visited the Mercer Museum in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. This visit complemented a class discussion about folk museums and the material heritage of pre-automated technology.

The historian and archeologist, Henry Chapman Mercer, traveled through Europe at the end of the 19th century, searching for traces of pre-industrial knowledge, but also researching manufacturing techniques to use in his tile and pottery business. Coinciding with the Eastern American Art & Crafts cultural movement and addressing all the melancholic aesthetics of the automated industry and technocratic era, Mercer realized that his world was full of antiquated and decaying objects that often accumulated as junk in dustbins and “penny lot” markets. Reflecting on the collection, student Jesús Martínez said, “It is incredible how we can miss a material world we never lived in.” Handcrafting tools, manufactured objects, machinery before power automatization, household furniture, whale-hunting boats, and even gallows: the Mercer Museum Collection is an eclectic testimony of a past world when work had a different aesthetic surrounding gestures, production, and ways of living. While this collection showcases a valuable heritage, it “might be idealized” as student Isabel Griffith-Gorgati pointed out.

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SPA382 in the central court of the Mercer Museum, under a blue whaling boat. From this angle, viewers look up at the boat “from the point of view of the whale.” (Courtesy of Rafael SM Paniagua)

Chapman Mercer organized his stunning collection within an experimental architectural space. The Museum itself is an extravaganza, shaped with concrete and planned from the inside out. It hosts a huge collection of material memory saved from oblivion. Chapman Mercer imagined his collection as the Tools of a Nation Maker, receiving praise and admiration from people like Henry Ford.

Henry Chapman Mercer visited Spain and the Yucatan Peninsula a few times. In 1892 he was doing archeology excavations in San Isidro, Madrid, where he spent Christmas, and attended the Columbian Historical Exposition as an honorary member of the U.S. Archeological Commission. The following year, he traveled through Andalucia to Seville, Cádiz (during Carnival) and Granada. Henry Chapman Mercer had a complex and fraught relationship with the Hispanic world, as demonstrated with his romantic fascination with Columbus as well as his studies of Spanish terracotta tile-making techniques and Arabic-style handcrafts. This knowledge, however, improved his tile making, such that they now serve as decoration in places like Kykuit, the Great Casino at Montecarlo, the Pennsylvania State Capitol, and the TCL Chinese Theatre in Hollywood.

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Conversation in the Imagination Room with Tom Doherty, an educator at the Mercer Museum who grew up in Doylestown. (Courtesy of Ryan Goodman)

Assisted by graduate student Ryan Goodman, who introduced this museum to Prof. Paniagua, the students practiced an exercise in deep attention and then had a conversation with Tom Doherty, a member of the education team. Mr. Doherty provided the class with historical background on Henry Chapman Mercer and his extraordinary museum, while critically discussing the life of these objects and their contribution to contemporary material heritage. Mr. Doherty’s reflections illustrated the strength of the museum as a space to reflect on a world before the electric era. This visit also created an opportunity to consider the ways this museum in the future could provide a multidimensional experience to an increasingly diverse audience.