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“A Search for Beauty” (and A Few Other Things)

Mercer Museum. (Kevin Crawford Imagery)

Specialty Museums in New Jersey and Pennsylvania

By Donald H. Sanborn III

“A visit to a museum is a search for beauty, truth, and meaning in our lives,” artist Maira Kalman is quoted as saying. “Go to museums as often as you can.”

For those who agree, New Jersey and Pennsylvania offer many places to visit. From history (of multiple subjects) to cars and insects, museums in the area offer a rich variety of exhibits. About this, there is no illusion — even if visitors to Philadelphia choose to visit the Museum of Illusions.

Museum of Illusions Philadelphia (Courtesy photo)

Located within walking distance of Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, the Museum of Illusions Philadelphia (moiphilly.com) features attractions such as the Smart Playroom, where you can challenge your mind, and test your problem-solving skills, with dilemma games, puzzles, and a variety of other brainteasers.

“The Museum of Illusions Philadelphia offers visual and educational exhibits designed to tease the senses and bring out the playfulness in guests of all ages,” says Rob Cooper, founder of LOL Entertainment, the parent company of the Museum of Illusions Philadelphia, in a statement. “With more than 60 exhibits featuring holograms, stereograms, and optical illusions, visitors will learn about vision, perception, and the human brain and experience firsthand the science of how the eyes can trick the mind.”

Cooper describes exhibits such as the “Vortex Tunnel, where your mind will think that the ground is moving under your feet, but in reality, you are not. Or if spinning vortexes isn’t your thing, you can defy the laws of gravity in the Rotated Room. Are you planning on going to the museum alone? Once you step inside, the Clone Table is sure to provide you with some much-needed company.”

When one considers that most museums only can exhibit a fraction of their collection at any one time, it is interesting to speculate about the items not on display. One museum in Philadelphia is featuring an exhibition that explores the question of “Unseen” items.

The Mütter Museum (muttermuseum.org) is a medical museum, founded in 1859, whose collection of specimens, wax models, and medical equipment ranges from the seventh century BCE to the present (though most of the historic items date to the mid-1800s), Photographer Nikki Johnson was given rare access to explore the Mütter’s restricted areas, and take pictures of the items and specimens normally unavailable to the public.

As the website explains, “Some of the specimens are not displayed because they have a similar pathology to items already shown. Others are fragile or need extensive conservation. The collection grew over the years as items were acquired from other, defunct institutions; the personal collections of retired physicians; or occasionally via donation from private individuals.”

Sports car enthusiasts will want to take a drive to the Simeone Foundation Automotive Museum (simeonemuseum.org) in Philadelphia. “Assembled over 50 years by Dr. Frederick Simeone, the museum contains over 75 historically significant cars including Ferrari, Alfa Romeo, Bugatti, Mercedes, Jaguar, Bentley, Porsche, Aston Martin, Corvette, Ford, and more,” states the museum’s website. Upcoming exhibits include “The Car Detective: The Stewardship of Historically Important Automobiles” (April 22); and “Le Mans Dynasties: Bentley, Alfa, Ferrari & Ford” (May 27).

If you want to see even more cars, consider visiting the Roebling Museum (roeblingmuseum.org) in Roebling. On April 29, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., the museum will host its annual Car Show. If you prefer cycling, on May 6 you can go on a bike tour of the Delaware River Heritage Trail.

The Roebling Museum “tells the story of hard work in a unique place — a company-owned steel town in the early 20th century known for building America’s most famous bridges,” says Executive Director Lynne M. Calamia. “Through permanent and temporary exhibits, tours, and programs, with a visit to Roebling Museum, you’ll learn about suspension bridges, working-class life, and industrial innovation.”

A new exhibit, “Roebling Works,” was “curated in partnership with the Smithsonian. The exhibit features fascinating stories and never-before-seen objects to reveal what it meant to work in a company town with a majority immigrant workforce.”

Calamia invites visitors to “Join us every Saturday at 1 p.m. for a walking tour through the historic company town to hear about the workers who called Roebling home. If you want to get a closer look at the company town houses, join us this summer for our annual garden tour.” The museum is open from March to the end of December.

Carlos Dorrien, The Nine Muses, Grounds For Sculpture. (Photo by David W. Steele)

In 1984 the late sculptor and philanthropist J. Seward Johnson conceived the museum that became the Hamilton-based Grounds For Sculpture (groundsforsculpture.org). The mission was to create an informal setting where contemporary sculpture would be accessible to viewers of all backgrounds. Johnson envisioned “a public space where the broadest cross-section of the public is invited to relate to sculptural arts and nature in an emotional way and encouraged to overcome any … fear of art, for an experience that elevates the soul and heals the spirit.”

Outdoors, Grounds For Sculpture features nearly 300 contemporary sculptures sited across 42 landscaped acres. Indoors, exhibitions from established and emerging artists are featured in six galleries.

A current exhibition, “That’s Worth Celebrating: The Life and Work of the Johnson Family” runs through the end of 2024. Curated by Lynn DeClemente Losavio, program officer of The Seward Johnson Atelier, the exhibition focuses on the family’s “passions, their belief in the spirit of innovation and the power of community, and how the founder’s vision … shaped Grounds For Sculpture’s early years.”

Two new exhibitions, “Local Voices: Memories, Stories, and Portraits” and “Spiral Q: The Parade,” open on April 23.

Heritage Glass Museum. (Courtesy photo)

Arts, Crafts, and Butterflies

It seems appropriate that the Heritage Glass Museum (heritageglassmuseum.com) is located in Glassboro. Home to a collection of glass bottles of astonishingly varied shapes and colors, the museum “works to collect, preserve, and curate historic southern New Jersey glassmaking artifacts and fine art,” says Kristin Qualls, a trustee of the museum. “The museum aims to inspire diverse audiences to explore the rich cultural history of New Jersey’s glassmaking heritage and its connection with the founding and growth of the United States.”

Qualls adds that the museum “collaborates with artists, researchers, and teachers to develop exhibits and educational programs that encourage learning, exploration, and a deeper, more personal connection with the community. The museum is a short walk to Glassboro’s Town Square, with excellent restaurants and a popular brewery.” The Heritage Glass Museum is open Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and admission is free.

Some of nature’s beautiful craftsmanship is on display at the Philadelphia Insectarium and Butterfly Pavilion (phillybutterflypavilion.com). The website invites visitors to “get lost in the 7,000-square-foot tropical ecosphere, filled with live butterflies, tropical plants, a fishpond, and waterfalls.” A chrysalis chamber enables viewers to “witness the miraculous transformation from chrysalis to butterfly.” There also is an exhibit about honeybees and their importance to the ecosystem. Additionally, the museum’s “collection of “stick insects, praying mantises, cockroaches, tarantulas, and scorpions is sure to intrigue you.”

Fonthill Castle. (Kevin Crawford Imagery)

Located in Doylestown, Pa., the Mercer Museum and Fonthill Castle (mercermuseum.org), operated by the Bucks County Historical Society, celebrate the legacy of Henry Chapman Mercer (1856-1930), an American archaeologist, anthropologist, ceramicist, and scholar.

A Smithsonian affiliate, the Mercer Museum features both local and national seasonal exhibits as well as a core museum collection of over 50,000 pre-Industrial tools. This permanent collection offers visitors a glimpse at Industrial America through 60 different crafts and trades. The Mercer Museum also features a research library that is a center for local history related to Bucks County, Pa., and the surrounding region; its roots date back to the founding of the Bucks County Historical Society in 1880.

Music lovers should plan to attend “Everyday Rhythms: Music at the Mercer,” an exhibit that is on view through December 31. “In addition to expressing ourselves, and entertaining each other, we have created, played, and adapted instruments to send signals, tell stories, convey power, accompany rituals, organize work, sustain culture and tradition, and give order to community life,” observes an article on the museum’s website. “‘Everyday Rhythms’ explores some of these common uses of music and musical instruments — shared across many regions, people, and cultures.”

The article continues, “Instruments featured in the show include not only European-American forms, but also those from areas of Africa and Asia (acquired by museum founder Henry Mercer during … the 1920s).” The exhibit also includes a “segment featuring a few instruments crafted in Bucks County, or in the nearby Delaware Valley, along with some tools employed by regional instrument makers.”

Fonthill Castle was built between 1908-1912 by Mercer, as his residence and a showplace for his collection of tiles and prints. The castle is an early example of reinforced concrete and features 44 rooms, more than 200 windows, and 18 fireplaces. Fonthill Castle’s interior features Mercer’s handcrafted ceramic tiles.

Once you have seen Mercer’s collection of tiles at Fonthill Castle, be sure to visit Tileworks (thetileworks.org), also in Doylestown. Mercer built the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works between 1911 and 1912. Mercer’s pottery “fully expressed the ideals of the American Arts and Crafts Movement, elevating Mercer to one of the movement’s most important proponents,” states the museum’s website. “His work was sought out by leading architects … to decorate public and private buildings all across the country.” Visitors can see “decorative halls and historic workshops,” as well as the steam engine and other historic machines that Mercer used to sculpt his creations.

Furniture aficionados should visit George Nakashima Woodworkers (nakashimawoodworkers.com) in New Hope, Pa. Nakashima (1905-1990) opened his woodworking business in 1945 to use skills he learned as an Eagle Scout, architect, and woodworker. According to the studio’s website, he “discovered the south-facing slope along Aquetong Road … and persuaded the owner to let him purchase three acres of land in exchange for labor. As his business grew, he purchased two more parcels of land and built a dozen more buildings.”

Nakashima’s work was a reaction against 20th-century design, in favor of an aesthetic that recalled earlier historical periods. In his book The Soul of a Tree he writes that wood is not an inanimate object; on the contrary, it “lives and breathes.” After Nakashima’s death, his daughter Mira Nakashima became creative director at the studio. She has retained her father’s general philosophy and process, while adding her own style.

USS New Jersey. (Courtesy of Battleship New Jersey)

History Museums

The history of the USS New Jersey (battleshipnewjersey.org) spans a little over half of the 20th century — from 1938 (when she was designed) and her launch on December 7, 1942 (the anniversary of Pearl Harbor), until her decommission in 1991. Her service includes World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Cold War, as well as conflicts in the Middle East. Approximately the size of three football fields, and over 11 stories high, the New Jersey was the longest battleship ever built. It boasts three turrets, each armed with three 16-inch guns that fired a six-foot long projectile.

“Today the New Jersey continues her service as a living museum and memorial in Camden, New Jersey, just across the Delaware River from Philadelphia where she was built,” the museum’s website observes. Guided tours, where a trained tour guide leads guests throughout the ship, launch every day at noon.  Self-guided tours, where visitors are provided a map, as well as video and interpretive signage along the tour route, are available daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.  The route includes the Combat Engagement Center, where visitors can view a simulated tomahawk missile launch; the Admiral’s and Captain’s Quarters; the Wardroom; and the areas where the crew ate and slept. Visitors also have the opportunity to climb inside a turret of the ship’s guns.

Visitors also will want to see the Tomahawk Missile Launch pads, which could precisely strike a target 1,500 miles away. On weekends, there are free extended tours of 16-inch Gun Turret II and/or the Engine Room. The museum offers many types of tours and events, including overnight encampments. Battleship New Jersey is located on the Camden Waterfront, across from Center City Philadelphia.

Walt Whitman’s house. (Wikipedia)

Also in Camden is the Walt Whitman House Museum (thewaltwhitmanassociation.org). In 1884 Whitman purchased the two-story frame house at 330 Mickle Boulevard (also known as Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard) — the only home he ever owned — and resided there until his death in 1892. The historic site is open Wednesday through Saturday with reserved tour times at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Call 856.964.5383 to schedule a tour.

Tourists who are fascinated by military history and enjoy Battleship New Jersey also will want to visit the Old Barracks Museum (barracks.org) in Trenton. The museum’s website notes that in 1758, the “building now referred to as the Old Barracks was constructed by the colony of New Jersey, in direct response to petitions from residents who were protesting compulsory quartering of soldiers in their own homes. It was one of five such buildings throughout New Jersey constructed for the purpose of housing British soldiers … and it is the only one still standing. At the time it was built, it was the largest building in Trenton and the second largest public building in New Jersey after Nassau Hall in Princeton.”

The Old Barracks Museum’s exhibits include “A Symbol of New Jersey to the World: The Old Barracks at the World’s Fair” and “‘Necessary and Proper for the Public Good’: How the American Red Cross and the Old Barracks Association partnered to contribute to the World War I effort at home.”

Residents who objected to sheltering soldiers in their homes most likely would have been even less happy at the prospect of housing the original occupants of a site in Mount Holly, which in 1966 was repurposed as the Burlington County Prison Museum (co.burlington.nj.us). Designed by Robert Mills (1781-1855), one of America’s first-born architects, the Burlington County Prison was completed circa 1811.

The museum’s website notes that the building was one of Mills’ “first designs as an independent architect and is a fine example of his ability to identify and solve some of the most difficult structural, safety, and utilization issues of the day.” The museum’s self-guided tour includes an optional audio guide. Brave visitors may want to try the museum’s Escape Game, in which “you will be given a case full of clues. Once you figure out the combination to open the case, you are on your way throughout the jail to find other clues leading to your ultimate ‘escape.’”

The Sterling Hill Mining Museum (sterlinghillminingmuseum.org) is a former iron and zinc mine in Ogdensburg. The Sterling Hill Mine dates to the 1600s, and it was New Jersey’s last working underground mine until its closure in 1986. It opened as a museum in 1989. Visitors who take the guided walking tour of the first level (the only level open to the public) are taken through approximately 1,300 feet of tunnel. Guides explain different aspects of the mine — such as its geology, history, working conditions, and equipment — and show tourists areas such as the lamp room and shaft station.

Arguably, the most colorful section of the mine is the Rainbow Tunnel. The museum’s website explains that this is an “area of the mine wall where the intensely fluorescent zinc ore is exposed. When subjected to shortwave ultraviolet light, the walls fluoresce bright green and red.”

Located in Philadelphia’s Historic District, on Independence Mall at the corner of 5th and Market Streets, the Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History (theweitzman.org) was established in 1976. A Smithsonian Affiliate, the museum is described by its website as the “only museum in the nation dedicated exclusively to exploring and interpreting the American Jewish experience. The Museum was originally founded by the members of historic Congregation Mikveh Israel, which was established in 1740 and known as the ‘Synagogue of the American Revolution.’”
Always on view is “Three Centuries, Three Floors,” an exhibition that “illustrates the stories of the American Jewish experience. Each floor covers almost a century and highlights the diverse backgrounds, expectations, and experiences of Jews who first came to these shores in the 1600s and the generations that followed.” Segments include Foundations of Freedom (1654-1880), Dreams of Freedom (1880-1945), and Choices and Challenges (1945-Today).

Harriet Tubman Museum. (Wikipedia)

The Harriet Tubman Museum (harriettubmanmuseum.org), which is on Lafayette Street in Cape May, is located on a block that was home to anti-slavery activists. The museum’s website notes that Tubman (1822-1913) “lived in Cape May in the early 1850s, working to help fund her missions to guide enslaved people to freedom.” It was through work she did at Cape May — as a cook for hotels and families — that Tubman funded the Underground Railroad. The museum is in the Howell House, formerly the parsonage for the Macedonia Baptist Church. After an online launch in 2020 (to coincide with Juneteenth of that year), it physically opened in September of that year.

Above and below: Thomas Edison National Historic Park. (NPS)

Thomas Edison National Historic Park (nps.gov), located in West Orange, encompasses Edison’s Glenmont residence and laboratory. It is here that Edison worked on inventions such as his phonograph and motion picture camera. Fans of HBO’s The Gilded Age probably remember the episode in which New Yorkers are dazzled by the first electric lights that illuminate the New York Times building. When a character wonders aloud whether culture is “headed in the right direction” after this “turning point in history,” one of the series’ protagonists replies, “We don’t have a choice in the matter … we must go where history takes us.”

Fortunately, an abundance of area museums enables us to retrace the steps that others have taken on that journey.

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