Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXV, No. 29
Wednesday, July 20, 2011
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The College of NJ’s New Museum Is Being Built to House the Sarnoff Collection

Anne Levin

At first glance, the cardboard boxes and bubble wrap that line a large, empty room at the College of New Jersey (TCNJ) don’t look like much. Dusty documents and dated pamphlets peek out of their makeshift containers. Rows of old circuit boards stand end-to-end.

But venture a little further inside this space at Roscoe West Hall, and treasures begin to appear. A signed photo of Winston Churchill is propped up next to a picture of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Stacked in a box are photos of Harry Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and John F. Kennedy. All of these framed official portraits are personally inscribed to the same man: technological innovator and RCA founder David Sarnoff.

They form just a fraction of the Sarnoff Collection, which was acquired by TCNJ and moved to the Ewing campus from its former home at the old RCA headquarters in West Windsor, with the assistance of the Sarnoff family, in 2009. The collection, which also includes the first electron microscope and the wireless key said to have been used by a young Mr. Sarnoff to communicate with the rescue ship Carpathia after the sinking of the Titanic, is currently being prepared for transportation across the hall into a specially designed museum space.

Princeton resident Emily Croll, onetime director of Morven Museum and Garden and the Historical Society of Princeton, has been hired as director and head curator of the gallery. The museum, which has yet to name an opening date, will house interactive exhibits about the dawn of television and other innovations developed at the Sarnoff laboratories on Route 1. Mr. Sarnoff died in 1971.

“This museum will not be stagnant. It will be forward-looking,” said John Laughton, Dean of the School of Arts and Communications. By studying Sarnoff’s work, he added, “students can develop a new way of looking at technology using the patterns Sarnoff used.”

It was at a Swarthmore College alumni event that Rosita Sarnoff, the entrepreneur’s granddaughter, mentioned to TCNJ’s Chair of Communication Studies John Pollock that the family was looking for a place to house the collection. It had recently been evicted from its former space at the Sarnoff Corporation. Mr. Pollock immediately expressed interest.

“It was serendipitous,” said Mr. Laughton.

The papers and development plans that were in the Sarnoff Library have been given to the Hagley Museum in Wilmington, Delaware. In deciding what to do with the other half of the collection, which includes such rarities as early liquid crystal displays, Mr. Sarnoff’s old desk, radios, televisions, and numerous other items, the family entertained inquiries from the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. and the Henry Ford Museum in Michigan.

“They really were happy to keep the collection right here in New Jersey, because these were innovations developed in New Jersey,” said Mr. Laughton. “And that makes it relevant to us as the College of New Jersey.”

Mr. Laughton hopes that students will be inspired by the story of Mr. Sarnoff, who was born in a Russian village and moved to America at the age of nine. He went to work to support his family at age 15, taking a job with the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company of America. That company would become the Radio Corporation of America.

“Part of Sarnoff’s skill was in his ability to bring really smart people together,” said Mr. Laughton. “When you talk with people who worked with him, you’ll find two different kinds of stories: Sarnoff as a shrewd businessman, and as an incredibly smart individual who brought people together.”

The space that will house the museum sits clean and empty, awaiting its final design. Already, a curved wall divides the large room, and its glass walls to the hallway are patterned to look like circuit boards. An advisor from Liberty Science Center is helping to determine how the museum will be laid out.

Mr. Laughton said that a lecture series is currently under consideration. “We are looking for people who may have had a past relationship with the family or items in the collection and who have an interest in furthering Sarnoff.” he said. “We are going around, doing interviews with his descendants. The students are taking part in this.”

A fundraising effort will be put into place to develop an endowment for the multimedia, interactive museum. Key to the project is the encouragement of further technological development among students at TCNJ. Part of the collection includes a database of electronic scans, which will be made available to students. Students will create apps for the museum about the Sarnoff history.

“What we really want people to know is that we have this amazing collection,” Mr. Laughton said. “There are still opportunities for New Jersey to develop skillful communication strategies.”

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