April 24, 2024

Morven Museum Marks Twentieth Anniversary With Untold Stories

By Anne Levin

Contemplating how to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Morven Museum & Garden, staff at the historic house on Stockton Street came to the conclusion that digging into their own collections was the way to go. “Morven Revealed: Untold Stories from New Jersey’s Most Historic Home,” a show of rarely exhibited objects and newly discovered photographs, opens Friday, April 26 and remains on view through March 2, 2025.

A lit-up Baby Jesus, a lavish inaugural gown, a child’s ring uncovered during archaeological work, and a history of all the pets who lived at the house are among the curiosities on display. Way before it became a museum, Morven was home to numerous notable residents — Richard Stockton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence; Robert Wood Johnson Jr., Johnson & Johnson heir; and five New Jersey governors have occupied the property. All had families and staffs.

And over the centuries, the house has hosted its share of celebrities. “What do George Washington, Grace Kelly, and Buzz Aldrin have in common? They were all guests at Morven, a home that has played a role in the history of New Jersey and the nation for more than 200 years,” reads a press release on the exhibition.

Elizabeth Allan, Morven’s deputy director and curator, said the process of preparing the show has yielded many surprises.

“We don’t have a huge collection, but everything we do have is connected to people who lived here. And we have been growing our archive over the years,” she said. “We thought this would be a great way to make this a fun birthday party for Morven. We went into it with a relaxed, fun feeling. What are the things people can relate to? We came up with all sorts of great stuff.”

One of the first-floor galleries focuses on furnishings, with some objects from the 18th and 19th centuries, but most from the 20th. “We look at how it was decorated in the 1920s and 30s, when Robert Wood Johnson and the governors lived here,” said Allan. “There were a lot of different trends. We pulled out pieces of wallpaper, furniture from when the house was refurbished in 1957, and lots of great photos starting with the 1910s.”

Another gallery is devoted to dressing, with wigs, corsets, elaborate gowns, and even some polyester garb on display. “We have Mrs. Byrne’s inaugural gown from 1974, which is on loan from the family,” Allan said. “It’s paired with a portrait of Mary Field Stockton done in the 1820’s, where she’s wearing her best fashion. It’s great to have that kind of juxtaposition.”

Childhood is the focus of another section. “This house was, at times, bustling with children,” Allan said. “The signer had six. Lots of babies were born in these rooms. We talk about that. We have toys that have been uncovered during archaeology — a Victorian doll fragment, marbles, even a child’s ring.”

One room is all about entertaining at Morven. Silver, china, and porcelain used in setting the table are on view in a recreated butler’s pantry. Holidays at the house, including the electrified Baby Jesus that belonged to the family of Gov. Richard Hughes, are another subject. The home’s famous guests and resident pets are also documented.

“We have a pet wall,” said Allan. “The thoroughbred horses bred by Commodore [Robert F.] Stockton are there, along with all of the puppies that have lived here. We’ve tracked down most of their names. And cats, too.”

The final section of the show has portraits and panels explaining Morven’s connections to Princeton properties including Lowrie House, Westland, Palmer House, and Prospect House. The property was originally much larger than its present five-acre site.

Related programs include “From Mansion to Museum: A Panel Discussion” on May 1 at 6:30 p.m. Speakers from the private and public spheres, who were involved in the process of creating the museum, will take part. On May 19 at 1 p.m., a walking tour of Morven’s neighboring Mercer Hill district will be led by the authors of Discovering Princeton: A Photographic Guide with Five Walking Tours. Space is limited. Visit morven.org to reserve.

“We’re 20 years old, but our history goes back to the 1750s,” Allan said. “This is a great way to celebrate.”