New Jersey State Museum in Trenton Offers Exhibits, Events, and Education
MOSASARUS MAXIMUS: This impressive restoration cast suspended from the ceiling is Mosasarus maximus, a 50-foot aquatic reptile that lived during the Late Cretaceous Period, 65-80 million years ago. It is shown in the natural history hall of the New Jersey State Museum, and is part of the “Written in Rocks” exhibit. This reptile was discovered in a quarry in southern New Jersey, and the original skull is in the museum’s collection.
By Jean Stratton
Explore the heavens in the Planetarium, learn about prehistoric creatures, investigate dinosaur fossils and casts of bones, view the fine art of New Jersey artists — and so much more.
This is all possible at the New Jersey State Museum, an institution close at hand in Trenton, which is still an unknown treasure for many state residents.
“This is a very rich resource for people who are interested in knowing more about the place where they are living,” says Susan Greitz, the museum’s marketing and public relations manager.
Greitz is enthusiastic about the variety of opportunities this outstanding museum offers visitors. Founded in 1895 (in one room of the State House), it has a long history of providing entertaining and informative exhibits and artifacts relating to New Jersey history. Located at 205 West State Street, overlooking the Delaware River, it is operated as part of the New Jersey Department of State.
Curiosity and Creativity
As its mission states: “It is a center for the exploration of science, history, and the arts. We preserve and share stories that inspire curiosity and creativity for the enrichment of our communities.”
Within a broad concept, the museum explores the natural and cultural diversity of New Jersey past and present.
Initially, the museum’s goal was to collect and exhibit specimens in natural history archaeology and industrial history, explains Greitz.
“This museum was the first in the country founded with education as its goal,” she says. “Our education department includes programs for schools, which are very popular. There is also a Discovery Den, where children can read and discover all sorts of things.”
Certainly, encouraging curiosity and emphasizing that all history has a story is a priority of the museum. Here — on the four floors of its exhibits — you will see an amazing array of items from different ages, eras, and places. Dinosaur casts, fossils of all kinds, grandfather clocks made by slaves, a statue of Abraham Lincoln carved by a New Jersey artist, a World War II flag from the Battleship USS New Jersey, Lenox china — and so much more.
As the museum evolved over the years, decorative arts were added and included the manufacture of ceramics. The ethnographic collection was initiated in 1932, when the museum purchased part of an exhibit of North American Indian art.
“Natural history is among the most popular exhibits,” reports Greitz, “and of course, people gravitate toward the dinosaurs. The first significant find of dinosaur bones was in New Jersey. There really is so much amazing information that we have to share.”
This department includes fascinating specimens of animals, birds, and insects, and prehistoric sharks’ teeth. The taxidermy collection is another focus that never fails to intrigue visitors. Industrial minerals and ores, paleontology (fossils), osteology (bones), and shells are also important aspects of the Natural History collection.
N.J.’s “Official Dinosaur”
The museum also displays an early cast of the first nearly complete dinosaur ever excavated, Hadrosaurus foulkil, which was found in Haddonfield in 1858. It was named the state’s “official dinosaur” in 1991. The museum is also the repository for about 300 type (first-documented) specimens of Paleozoic and Mesozoic fossils.
The archaeology/ethnography collection encompasses more than 2 million prehistoric and historic specimens, and more than 2,000 ethnographic objects. It provides data on the entire span of human occupation of New Jersey from prehistoric to historic 19th century. The collection is especially rich in examples of Native American textiles, bead, and hide work. The exhibit includes specimens that represent the Lenape and other North American Indian groups.
The cultural history collection preserves and interprets objects that document the lives of people who have lived in New Jersey from the 17th century to the present. The collection includes more than 13,000 artifacts documenting the state’s cultural, economic, military, political, and social history, as well as aspects of its decorative arts.
In 1964, fine art became the fourth area of collecting, and decorative arts became part of cultural history to reflect the collection more specifically. Also, in 1965, the museum moved to the new Cultural Complex on West State Street.
The museum has collected more than 12,000 works of art, from the 18th century to the present, including paintings, prints, drawings, and photography, most acquired since 1965.
The collection has an American focus that highlights the work of New Jersey artists within the context of American art history. Also included are works that depict New Jersey scenes and events.
Works by American modernists associated with Hoboken-born Alfred Stieglitz and abstract artists of the 1930s and ’40s, contemporary works of American art,and a comprehensive collection of works by 19th and 20th century African American artists are also part of the impressive collection.
In addition, the Fine Art Department features New Jersey artists in rotating exhibits. Currently on display is the “2022 New Jersey Arts Annual: Reemergence.” This exhibition highlights the work of visual artists and craftspeople from around the state, and is on view through April 30, 2023.
“It is a privilege to present the work of these New Jersey artists as we all reckon with the events of the last few years, and consider how we move forward in the ongoing pandemic,” says Sarah Vogelman, the museum’s assistant curator of fine art. “The 95 selected artists, working across disciplines and media, have each responded to the rupture and challenges of life in the pandemic in their own ways.
“In much of the work, themes of anxiety, isolation, surrealism, and dis/connection come through, as do impulses to contemplate and commune with immediate surroundings, be it an interior space, still life, or landscape. We hope the exhibition serves as a place for the public to engage and reflect as we each envision reemergence.”
HISTORY ON DISPLAY: “We want everyone who visits the museum to enjoy their time here, discover something new, and be inspired,” says Susan Greitz, marketing and public relations manager of the New Jersey State Museum. Collections include Natural History, Archaeology/Ethnography, Fine Art, and Cultural History. The Planetarium is another important focus.
“Out of This World”
The exhibit includes the work of eight Princeton-based artists, adds Vogelman, also noting that many visitors to the museum are from Princeton and the area.
A highlight for many of these visitors is the Planetarium. Since its opening in 1964, the 140-seat spacious setting has been a large part of the museum’s public programming, incorporating both educational programs and a variety of entertainment features, such as traditional sky shows, with precision projection of more than 6,000 stars, a visual display of the solar system, and laser concerts. Fully upgraded with an Ultra-High 8K projection system, it ensures a spectacular “out of this world” experience.
Special events, educational programming, internships, and family activities are all part of the museum’s ongoing effort to broaden the horizons of those who visit the museum. In addition, space can be rented in the museum by individuals or groups for special events and gatherings.
A gift shop offers opportunities to purchase a variety of items and mementoes.
“This museum is a special place,” emphasizes Greitz. “Come and share it with us, and be inspired.”
The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday 9 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. Admission is free. Donations are gratefully accepted.
The planetarium is open on weekends for several shows, with a $10 adult admission charge, $5 for children 12 and under. For further information, call (609) 292-6464. Website: statemuseum.nj.gov.