New Glensheen exhibit shows off Congdon family’s mysterious papers and morbid inkwell
Glensheen Obscura gives visitors a look at some of the never-before-seen finds that have been well-hidden on the Congdon estate.
Among the pieces collected by the Congdon family — and in some cases double- or triple-wrapped for preservation and stored in one of the 23 closets at the Glensheen mansion : a Maori cape made from the feathers of six kinds of birds, the official report for the building of the Panama Canal and a nine-piece musical instrument made of bamboo and acquired by Chester Congdon when he was traveling in Indonesia.
Five years ago, Glensheen’s keepers conducted a full inventory of the Congdon collection — a first true look at everything in their 30 years of operating the space. While combing storage spaces — and opening packages hidden in plain sight — the idea for the current exhibit took root.
Glensheen Obscura, which opens June 4, is a showcase of a dozen or so of the family’s handcrafted souvenirs, DIY-ed decorations and buffalo furs on display in multiple rooms of the mansion. Dan Hartman and staff offered a preview of the pieces to local media on Thursday morning, the museum director wearing green protective gloves and unable to leave pieces in the formal dining room unattended.
“They are definitely not your standard-issue Glensheen,” said Hartman on his second-to-last day on staff at the mansion operated by the University of Minnesota Duluth. In a few weeks, he will take over as the executive director of the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center. “This is not a ‘Gowns of Glensheen’ exhibit. This is not here to romanticize. These are weird, obscure and sometimes morbid pieces.
“And I think that’s what’s kind of fun about it.”
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Chester Congdon’s Maori cloak, purchased from a shopkeeper, according to the patriarch’s diary, has patterns of brown feathers outlined in orange, with white and green along the edges of the rectangular piece. A hand-crafted wooden, multi-section Japanese Bento box, decorated with flowers and vines and including small metal flask-like containers — for soy sauce, Hartman speculated while handling the pieces, or better yet sake.
It’s the inkwell, not quite a necessity in this post-quill era, that has been pushed to the forefront of promotional material — a palm-sized wooden skull with an ivory snake winding through an eyeball hole and around the forehead.
“A cool piece you can easily see on the smoking room desk while Chester is signing a back-room deal,” Hartman said, offering a possible visual.
On the main level of the home, the staff set up a display of the angklung Congdon bought in Indonesia for 8 florin, which would be about $115 now. The musical instrument is made of bamboo tubes that are shaken, and played in tandem with others, to create tunes.
The Congdon’s furry buffalo robe was spread in the master bedroom — a piece that would have been placed across the laps of sleigh riders. At the period in history when this was brought home, marketing manager Jane Pederson Jandl noted, buffalo were nearing extinction.
Helen Congdon’s bedroom has long had its own oddity on display.
“Evangeline,” Jandl said. “Our famous doll.”
The German plaything has eyelids that close when its chair rocks and a head full of human hair. For this exhibition, she is joined by two unnamed friends: one naked with cracks in its skin, the other missing 75 percent of its face and one eyeball.
The Panama Canal papers, which came packaged in multiple volumes, were discovered by a former Glensheen employee who wanted to know the contents of a package on a bookshelf. Hartman opened them — and has been struck by the mystery ever since.
Why would Chester Congdon have these plans?
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The Congdons built the 20,000-square-foot Jacobean mansion on 22 acres along the shore of Lake Superior between 1905-08. Chester Congdon was a lawyer involved in the mining industry and later a politician. Clara Congdon studied art in college, taught briefly, and managed the family and the home.
Asked about their personalities, whether the Congdons were in any way “weirdos” who might celebrate macabre souvenirs, Hartman said no.
“That’s part of the surprise to us, the staff, as well,” he said. “They are, this sounds like a cop-out, but they are legitimately a humble, quiet folk.”
This, he added, has made it hard to know more about the Congdons — including the origin stories of the pieces in the collection.
There are more fun finds within the collection, enough to create more exhibitions. Hartman looked toward a hutch in the dining room and indicated that there is a piece in the house that people walk by every day that has a cool backstory.
“We won’t go into that right now,” he said, and then refused to budge on it.
On Thursday morning, the estate was lively with tourists — a return for the property that, like other museums in the state, shut down during part of the pandemic and then returned in a limited way.
“This is what a normal summer day would feel like,” Jandl said.
- If you go: 3300 London Road, 218-726-8910, glensheen.org .