September 26, 2018

Reimagined Galleries at Morven Tell a More Inclusive Story

NEW AND IMPROVED: The first floor galleries at Morven Museum and Garden opened September 7 after a major redesign. Visitors that evening inspected a 19th century grand piano that was sold to Commodore Robert Field Stockton in 1864, two dueling pistols, and other historic artifacts.

By Anne Levin

Since its conversion to a museum 14 years ago, Morven has focused on the lives of such noteworthy residents as Richard Stockton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and other patriarchs key to the history of New Jersey, the nation, and the house itself.

But there was a lot more to the story of this National Historic Landmark on Stockton Street. Thanks to “Historic Morven: A Window Into America’s Past,” visitors can now learn not only about famous residents, but about the women, children, enslaved men and women, immigrant servants, and others who lived and worked at the 18th-century property. The exhibition, which is on the first floor of the museum, opened a few weeks ago.

“Our goal was to have a much more robust interpretation,” said Jill Barry, Morven Museum and Garden executive director. “While most historic houses have one guy, we’re so fortunate that we have so many people to talk about. In the previous installation, the governors who lived here weren’t even represented materially. Now, we’re able to more holistically tell the story, and put it in context. Who were these people? And what were they dealing with?”

While visitors previously had to be led through the first floor exhibit by a docent, the new display can be self-guided if preferred. “We still encourage people to use our docents, but if they choose not to or if a docent isn’t available, they can go through without one and have just as good an experience,” said Barry. “If there are things people are really interested in, they can dig deep. Most people won’t read every label, but they certainly can if they like.”

There is a lot to read and experience in the exhibit. It begins in what is the oldest part of the house, where an exposed section of wall reveals the remains of the original cooking hearth and arched brick oven. A display case holds artifacts spanning the home’s history — with such objects as a 19th-century child’s toothbrush, a horse mandible with teeth intact, and a 20th-century plastic water gun, likely used by one of Governor Brendan Byrne’s children.

Morven was built by Richard Stockton in the 1750s on property granted to his grandfather by William Penn. Archaeology has revealed evidence of Lenni-Lenape residents of the five-acre property before Stockton arrived. After Stockton, residents of Morven included Commodore Robert Stockton, Robert Wood Johnson, Jr., and five New Jersey governors. The house served as the New Jersey Governor’s Mansion from 1954 to 2004.

The exhibit covers the history of enslaved people at Morven — to the degree that it is available. Their identities are hard to find, “as their stories were not valued by those recording history,” reads a panel. “Census records help, although only men who were able to work were required to be listed — this leaves the number of enslaved women, children, and the elderly unknown.”

While not documented, it is likely that those in bondage slept in the kitchen. Visitors are urged, “As you move through the museum, observe the scale of these spaces and consider the constant proximity that enslaved men and women endured.”

What was once the formal dining room is now the first grand room of the exhibit. A silk brocade gown made in Paris and worn by Julia Stockton Rhinelander, on loan from the Historical Society of Princeton; the Oath of Abjuration and Allegiance from December 11, 1777, in which Richard Stockton renounced his allegiance to the King; and a silver teapot with the Stockton crest, circa 1760, are among items on display.

“One of the nice things about this is that there are vignettes we can switch out,” said Barry. “If new scholarship becomes available, or when objects come off of their loan period, we can make changes. Depending on what happens to us as a community, there may be stories we want to highlight or focus.”

A substantial portion of the exhibit is devoted to the life of General Robert Wood Johnson, whose tenure at Morven stretched through the Great Depression and the beginning of World War II. Johnson first rented the property in 1930 and lived there with his second wife, Maggi, and daughter Sheila, whom he adored. Visitors learn that after the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby, Johnson had Sheila’s governess lock them in at night and instructed her never to leave the child alone.

“Everybody thinks of the general as this big, tough businessman, which he was, but he had this charming relationship with his daughter,” said Barry. “Being able to show that side of him in the house they lived in was so special. You read about how they had breakfast together every morning. We want to show all these people as much more dimensional than the history books tell you. Everybody was human and reacting to what was around them.”

The room focused on the five governors who lived at Morven includes such curiosities as a wedding announcement for the 1957 marriage of Governor Robert and Helen Meyner; a photograph of presidential candidate John F. Kennedy in Morven’s driveway, surrounded by students from Miss Fine’s school; and a photo of Governor Brendan Byrne and tennis great Althea Gibson playing on the Morven court.

Reaction to the exhibit has been positive, though a few people have professed to miss Morven’s dining room as it was, admitted Barry. “I got a couple of emails over the weekend from people who were so impressed. And we got a great review on TripAdvisor from someone who was here on Saturday.”

Asked if she has a favorite part of the exhibit, Barry demurred. “You can’t pick your favorite child,” she said. “But I’m just excited that we’re saying so much more. There are so many more people represented now — more meat on the bone.”