Glensheen Mansion Puts Rarely Seen Artifacts on Display

Go room to room in search of strange or worldly heirlooms at a new exhibit at the Duluth museum
A Japanese bento box, formerly tucked away inside the Glensheen Mansion, is now on display in a new exhibit
A Japanese bento box, formerly tucked away inside the Glensheen Mansion, is now on display in a new exhibit

Glensheen Mansion, the historic house-turned-museum in Duluth, is showcasing hidden gems of the old Congdon family, rarely before seen by the public.

It’s enough for Dan Hartman—who just ended his role as Glensheen director—to geek out. “I’ve been working here for eight years; I’m going to do an exhibit I wanna do,” he says.

The exhibit, open as of last Friday and running through the summer, is exciting because it brings out 12 unique pieces purchased during the Congdons’ travels. The items have been arranged in scavenger-hunt style in different rooms of the house.

They are more obscure and morbid than what’s typically on display—hence the exhibit name Glensheen Obscura. “I enjoy the shock value,” Hartman says, explaining that staff had “very recently just gone through literally everything,” with these objects having been in storage for years. He hints that there may be more to come after this showing.

Courtesy of Glensheen Mansion

Hide and Go Seek

After attending the tour myself, I can provide a taste of what to expect.

In the smoking room, for instance, you’ll find a skull-and-snake inkwell. In the time of Chester and Clara Congdon (who built the mansion between 1905 and 1908), inkwells were not used. However, I can see how they may have been captivated by the intricate design: a skull pierced by an ivory snake that goes through the eye socket. On top of the inkwell sits a small frog that functions as a handle. Unfortunately, like quite a few of the pieces, Glensheen staff do not know where this particular piece is from.

The Congdons were notoriously humble and quiet, according to Hartman, so Glensheen staff struggle to know what the family did, which adds a little mystery to the exhibit. Glensheen marketing manager Jane Pederson Jandl describes these finds as peeling away the onion on the Congdon family.

Courtesy of Glensheen Mansion

In the breakfast room, a Japanese bento box was made out of handcrafted wood. (While these boxes are sold in the U.S. today, you may find more made of plastic.) According to the booklet accompanying the exhibit, when Chester came in contact with this bento box in the early 1900s, it would’ve been referred to as “Sage-Juubako.” Chester was quite fond of this box—or so it would seem, at least, as Hartman claims Chester has written all about it in his journals.

In the formal dining room lies a feather cape from New Zealand. Hartman explains that Chester got the cape, from the Indigenous Maori people, during his travels to New Zealand. He was most likely struck by the vibrant green and orange feathers, with Chester having written in a journal that it was one of the finest capes he had ever seen.

Courtesy of Glensheen Mansion

In the living room, an instrument made of bamboo, called an angklung, can be found next to a video that shows how it is played and what the instrument sounds like. It is unknown if the family actually played the instrument, but we do know that Chester spelled it incorrectly (“auklung”) in his journal.

In the master bedroom, a buffalo blanket was likely used during the harsh Duluth winters. In Helen Congdon’s room nearby, in the corner by her bed, you’ll find her doll named Evangeline. Two much creepier dolls sit in the display case, one with its face completely smashed in. No one knows whose dolls they were—presumably one of the daughter’s. (One thing I do know is these dolls may give you nightmares.)

Courtesy of Glensheen Mansion

An exciting feature for those native to Duluth is the original Duluth Pack tent, found in the amusement room. The company got its start in the mid-1800s, opened shop in 1870, and is still open today. The canvas tent even has the original Duluth Pack logo on the front.

One artifact of particular historic interest is displayed in the billiards room. On the table lie plans for the Panama Canal. Pederson Jandl explained that one of the previous staff members was particularly intrigued by a package that sat on one of the bookshelves. On her last day, she requested to open it, just to find the plans. It is quite odd that Chester would have these plans—and, perhaps because the family was so private, no one has records of why.

Glensheen Obscura ultimately lives up to the name: All artifacts in the exhibit are equally fascinating and unsettling. After looking through what was shown to the public after having been locked away for so long, I’m left wondering what the mansion will show in later exhibitions. What else did the Congdons have that’s now locked away?

Glensheen Mansion (3300 London Rd., Duluth) is open daily 9 a.m.-5 p.m. for self-guided tours. Find more information on Glensheen Obscura here.

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