If you’re an avid viewer of Antiques Roadshow, you probably already know that Steiff is a toy manufacturer famous for its teddy bears. But you’re among only two percent of Americans who know that, according to Nan Bress Ferri, co-owner and curator of the Steiff “teddy bear museum” and gift shop located inside The Den of Marbletown in Stone Ridge.
Knowing that kind of statistic is all in a day’s work for Bress Ferri. “I’m a documentary filmmaker by profession and I also do corporate ethnographic work,” she says. “Companies hire me to study things like, ‘How do Baby Boomers use the trunk space in their Buick’ versus ‘How does a Gen-X person, or ‘How do teachers use smartboards in China versus France.’ We study people, then make a film and a written report. It’s interesting work.”
Through her company Docnography — the name comes from blending the words documentary and ethnography — Bress Ferri makes independent documentary films that have been screened on PBS and at the Sundance and Tribeca film festivals. “I like making films that are character-driven,” she says. “I like what makes people tick. Also historical documentaries and cultural ones; I worked on one called ‘Sumo East and West’ looking at the different approaches to Sumo wrestling.”
So perhaps, in considering her interest in the cultural and historical, it’s not as huge a leap as it sounds for Bress Ferri to open a Steiff museum and shop. The Steiff company, after all, has been in business since 1880 and its bears are true cultural icons for many in previous generations. “I’m intrigued that Steiff is this luxury brand that has such a small brand recognition in the states,” Bress Ferri says. “In Europe and Asia, it’s a 98 percent recognition, which is at the level of Coca-Cola. I’m excited about growing the brand recognition of Steiff in the states, especially now that FAO Schwartz has unfortunately closed.” [The retailer was one of the few places one could purchase Steiff.]
But why open a museum? Why not just make a documentary film about the Steiff company? “This does seem like a funny detour and a total digression from my work,” Bress Ferri says with a laugh. But she also has a background in art history and museums, she points out, having worked in the education departments for both the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, where she’s originally from. “And through my travels, I’m struck by what makes areas specific and unique. I’ve always loved the little regional museums; they are so idiosyncratic to an area, especially as the big museums get more corporate and less individual. I want to make this a little destination for people coming through the Hudson Valley.”
Nan Bress Ferri and her husband, Steve Ferri — a television news producer in New York City before they moved up to the Hudson Valley ten years ago — opened The Den of Marbletown in October. Steve was first introduced to the bears through Grace Bress, Nan’s mom and a lifelong collector of the toys. As an animal lover, he came to appreciate the lifelike qualities of Steiff animals and admired their quality craftsmanship. When Grace began sending some of her collection to the couple to make more room in her own house, his reaction along with Nan’s was, “We should start a museum or something.”
Nan says they had it in mind for about five years before finding the right property. The Den of Marbletown is housed in an 1860 farmhouse on Basten Lane off Route 209, property that was in the Basten family for at least six generations, says Bress Ferri. When the permit process is completed — anticipated to happen within weeks — the Den will become a bed-and-breakfast, as well, with a family suite upstairs. There’s also an adjoining room available for additional friends or family of the primary guests, with the one bathroom shared. The Ferris live nearby in Lamontville with their ten-year-old daughter, Ella.
The museum and shop are open Wednesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. There is a very rare 1904 Steiff bear on display, on loan from a collector, and a reading room upstairs with original Steiff catalogues. The exhibits will rotate every few months, with the current exhibit focusing on vintage tin toys and board games along with original and reproduction Steiff animals in dioramas. Local artists put together the scenarios featuring the bears and other animals in scenes relating to the region. “We love the idea of turning this into a tourism hub to point people to other things to do,” says Bress Ferri. On display at present are dioramas representing the Steiff animals at the Mills Mansion in Staatsburgh, the D&H Canal Museum (complete with a reference to the famous story about the alligator in the canal) and the local Rail Trail Café.
And about that question, ‘Why not just make a documentary,’ Bress Ferri is working on a documentary film about the Steiff company, as it happens, which will be shown in the museum when complete. She says they have plans to offer all kinds of interactive exhibits in the museum and supplementary activities for kids like storytime, birthday parties, scavenger hunts and art classes; perhaps even stop-motion film classes using the bears. At some point, the front room of the farmhouse will likely house a “grab-and-go” café with baked goods and coffee available. “The next step now for us is to finish our 501(c) (3) application, so we’re a true nonprofit museum,” says Bress Ferri. “Right now we’re running as a business, but once we’re a nonprofit, I have a background writing grants and I’d love to raise money to do special education programs and exhibitions.
“We’d like to have the museum be a space where people will see something new each time,” she adds. “We want them to come back and come back often. My favorite documentaries are ones where the viewer can make their own meaning and connections, and isn’t just a recipient of what is fed to them. That’s what I’m hoping for here, that people will do their own kind of storytelling and just experience it. We hope they’ll fall in love with the brand, and that they’ll become collectors, but people can come to the museum and just look. There’s no expectation that they buy something in the shop.” The couple also have an online store.
Admission to the museum is currently free, but at some point in the future a nominal fee will be charged.
Recently New Paltz Times sat down with Nan Bress Ferri to ask her a little bit more about a day’s work curating a teddy bear museum.
What do you like most about running the museum and the shop?
I love the creative aspect of having a brick-and-mortar business, since my Docnography work involves so much teleconference and remote work with my clients. I love the new learning that comes with being a shop owner, interacting with people who come in and seeing their response.
What is the hardest thing?
There’s a certain parallel with filmmaking; you have your pre-production — your vision of what it’s going to be — your production of making the film happen and then post-production, editing it. Production for us here was building the museum, getting the permits, doing the upgrades on the house, making the installations. In this case, post-production is really marketing it. Now that we’ve created it, we have to run it and it’s a different skill set. For me, the marketing is the biggest challenge and is not very natural to me.
What personal attributes are necessary to run a business like this?
Definitely creativity and organization; being able to plan ahead for events. Also inspiring other people to join in with your vision and finding the right people who get it… harnessing their abilities and creativity, like the local artists who create the dioramas.
What makes for a really good day?
To see the impact of it being a special place and a kind of magical experience for people, whatever age they may be. Having people come in and say, ‘I was skeptical about this teddy bear museum thing before I came in’ and then seeing their jaws drop… ‘blown away by it’ is some of the language people use. I want people to leave with the experience of having learned something or just having been inspired in some way, have it spark something within you, a new way of looking at the world.
And a bad day?
We had good business from the opening through February, then March and April were slower and now things are picking up again. We’ll have to re-think things next winter, knowing this. Creating an experience that will get people out of the house in the winter will be a challenge.
What advice would you give someone going into this field? (Meaning the retail shop part of things, since not many people will be opening their own museums!)
My advice would be to really get to know your target audience. From the ethnographic work I do for corporations, I have the insight that we need to study who is already buying Steiff bears to understand what their unmet needs are in a retail store. You have your own vision of what you think will sell, and what will be a nice experience, but if you already have a brand with a market, get to know that consumer and then work from that knowledge base.
Do you see yourself doing this ten years from now?
I love the idea of making this into a success and then disengaging and having new people run it eventually; that’s my goal for it. We’ll see if this resonates with this area, but if it does develop a following and become a place that people want to come to, I love the idea of it having a life of its own without us. If it doesn’t develop that type of following, I’m sure we’ll look at it as a great experience in life to have attempted something like this.