July 22, 2020

NJ Governors and Families Help Raise Awareness, Support for Morven

MORVEN MEMORIES: This photo of Brendan Byrne with Princess Grace and Prince Rainier of Monaco, and their children Albert and Caroline, was taken August 25, 1975. Byrne’s son, Tom, recalls meeting the famous family in a video that is part of the just-released series. (Morven Archive)

By Anne Levin

Before becoming a museum more than three decades ago, Morven was home to several New Jersey governors and their families. So who better to turn to, administrators thought, when trying to think of a way to rescue the National Historic Landmark from the potentially devastating financial circumstances?

“We are in dire straits,” said Debi-Lampert Rudman, Morven Museum and Garden’s curator of Education and Public Programs. “We were on target to have our highest attended year ever, and then the pandemic hit. We have held some programs, but without regular visitors, it’s not good.”

Enter former Governors Tom Kean and Christie Whitman, current Gov. Phil Murphy, a daughter of former Gov. Richard Hughes, and a son of former Gov. Brendan Byrne, all of whom immediately agreed to take part in a series of videos about their experiences while living at Morven. The hope is that the videos will not just be entertaining, but inspire donations.

The segments  are being posted on social media, and will eventually become a permanent feature of the Morven website. Streaming began last week with Whitman and Honey Hughes. They continue this week with Tom Byrne. Kean will be next, followed by the final video with Murphy.

“He went above and beyond in his video,” said Rudman of the current governor. Each person I asked to do this got a little script that they might have wanted to follow. But Gov. Murphy went a lot further to bring Morven into being symbolic of what makes New Jersey so great and so resilient. Others were more casual, but he is wearing a suit with flags of New Jersey and the USA behind him. It’s very patriotic and sincere.”

Built more than three centuries ago, Morven was originally part of a 5,500-acre tract purchased from William Penn in 1701. It was the home of Richard Stockton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and is the only home of a New Jersey signer that is open to the public.  As well as serving as a Stockton homestead for several generations into the 20th century, and home to three generations of enslaved families, Morven housed the families and staff of Robert Wood Johnson Jr., and was the first New Jersey Governors’ Mansion and home to five New Jersey governors and their families and staffs.

Honey Hughes lived in the house from the ages of 5 to 13. “One of the memories she shares is that she slept in the Kennedy room, where John F. Kennedy is believed to have stayed when he stopped at Morven during campaigning,” said Rudman. During his segment, which Rudman filmed herself on Monaco’s front steps, Tom Byrne recalls being seated at lunch with Princess Caroline and Prince Albert of Monaco.

Kean did his video from his home. “He’s awesome,” Rudman said. “He really nailed it. He loves Morven. He was a history teacher, and he talks about why he thinks Morven is probably one of the most important historical sites in New Jersey.”

Part of what makes the 18th-century historic site unique is the fact that it was lived in by several notable residents, not just one. “It’s safe to say that thanks to New Jersey’s governors, Morven Museum & Garden stands today,” said Executive Director Jill Barry.  “We are honored that several governors and their families have graciously lent their time and talents to help us raise awareness, and hopefully, some much-needed funds, to keep Morven, New Jersey’s first governors’ residence, open and thriving.”

“The whole purpose of this is that we need funds,” said Rudman. “The community has rallied around our plant sale, our Fourth of July in the Bag, and are helping get ready for our bulb sale. But the government money we normally get, we’re not getting. Thanks to our wonderful volunteers and interns, our gardens look great. But we have had furloughs and pay cuts, and are now very lean and mean.”

The museum reopened to the public, with health guidelines, on July 15. Details can be found at morven.org, while the videos can be found on Instagram @morvenmuseum.