Last week a group of twenty artists –visual, poetry, written and spoken story, music and craft—gathered at the Mercer Museum in Doylestown to ponder two questions: How can we create a performance in the Central Court of the Museum? Is there a connection between such a performance and the Museum’s collection of 19th century tools?
Before I share some of the answers arrived at by this community of artists, I want to share some background to our being in the Museum in the first place. It was more than three years ago I that I first approached Cory Amsler, the Vice President of Collections and Interpretation at the Museum about the idea of performing an afternoon of stories for adults at the Museum. Two years ago we did a winter concert of “Love Stories” in the Elkins Gallery of the Museum. This was followed by a second concert on the same theme, but different tellers and stories. Both concerts were enriched by the musical accompaniment of my good friend, Phil Orr.
Last spring when I went to the Museum to speak with Cory about a third concert, I happened to walk through the Central Court of the Museum, and there I connected with the idea for yesterday’s gathering. What about a concert in this Central Court? How could we do it?
Let me describe the Central Court to help you understand the source of my fascination. Imagine a room that has the feel of a medieval castle: the walls are of poured concrete, but because of their textured surfaces, they could be mistaken for stone. Arches and columns support balconies on five levels that looked down on the Central Court. The ceiling over the great hall is five stories high. Unlike an ancient castle this structure has a wall with many windows that bathe the room in a soft natural light on a sunny day. And the unique feature of the room –some might call it funky—is that objects are anchored in position on walls, columns, and the high ceiling over your head. There is a 19th century whale boat anchored to the third level balcony, a water pumper for putting out fires floats overhead from the second level. A cradle for a baby and chairs are suspended from the ceiling a hundred feet overhead. As you gaze around the room there are objects, “tools”, for some long forgotten purpose, everywhere!
I have a little story about my personal connection to the Central Court of the Mercer Museum. When my grandchildren were three to five years old, we often went to the Museum to play. They loved to run from place to place to see their favorite exhibits. One was a display of a henhouse with a chicken sitting on her eggs. Another was a five foot tall wooden man, probably from circus show. He was kind of scary looking as he lurked under a balcony in a dark, shadowy corner. The last thing we did on every visit was lie on the floor in the Central Court and look up at the objects attached to the balconies, walls and ceiling. And the children always followed the same line of reasoning. What is holding them up there? Don’t you think they could fall on our heads? Hey, let’s get out of here before it happens! And we would get up and run away laughing because once again we had escaped before the great disaster.
After I had the idea for a performance in this unique space, I had a second idea: It would be great fun to invite a whole group of creative people to come together for a day to explore this building and imagine a performance in the Central Court –and that is exactly what we did last week. So what did we have fun imagining? What new ideas were born out of our four hours of shared, creative exploration of the Mercer Museum?
First, before I share some of the new ideas, I want to tell what surprised me about our exploration of the Mercer. These people like the idea of telling “tool stories”. Several brought tools with them and they had stories to tell about their tools. One African-American woman had an iron comb that was used to straighten her hair as a young girl. She told the story of her aunt heating the comb on the stove and saying, “you have to suffer a little if you want to be beautiful”. A man brought a collection of swords and dueling pistols that hung on the wall of his bedroom as a child. He said that “I loved to lie in bed at night as boy of nine and imagine stories of the people who used these tools”. He imagined stories of pirates and swashbuckling heroes. It never occurred to him to take one of the weapons down from the wall and try to use it.
As a series of tool stories were shared in our group it became clear that almost everyone had a tool story and was eager to tell it. There was an identity with Henry Mercer and his tool collection. Soon the idea bubbled up that a performance about tools might allow us to reflect on the fact that we live in a world today that is more and more virtual, everything is experienced through the mind and we have lost a kinesthetic connection to our world. At one point, as we all stood in the Central Court, one person stepped in front of the group and presented himself as 19th century workman. He pointed up the fireman’s water pumper high over our heads and he told how this tool was used one hundred and fifty years ago!
This impromptu performance led into a discussion of the music that might accent our tool stories. Someone imagined a “call and response”, a kind of work song, that would be followed by the telling of John Henry, the steel driving man story. Another imagined the work song would be heard from a distance; the singer(s) would be on the fifth balcony, high above the main floor of the Central Court. For nearly an hour the stories and ideas for a performance in the Central Court ricocheted off the concrete walls of Mr. Mercer’s museum. It was everything that I had imagined when the idea first came to me.
So how are ideas like comets? I imagine them as speeding objects that come to mind with a bright light and soon they are gone. They can come back again, and sometimes it best to wait for their return before you decide to connect with them. In either case, we know it is difficult to land on a comet, as little Philae’s landing has taught us. It takes a lot of dedication and hard work to make it happen. So I imagine it will be to make a success of my idea to produce a performance in the Central Court of the Mercer Museum. We will see the results in the next six months.