Growing up in a family headed by a single mother, Anthony Gardner, the new executive director of the New Jersey State Museum, deeply appreciated both of his older brothers. Harvey, who was 10 years older than Anthony, and Mark, six years older, went to work right after high school to help support their family. Although both of his brothers did well, with Harvey working in the information technology business and Mark owning a car business, Anthony appreciates how much they both sacrificed to make sure he could go to college. “That’s not typical of brothers,” Gardner says. “It’s more of a parent’s role than a sibling’s.”
Harvey eventually found a position in the information technology department at General Telecom, which had a corner office on the 83rd floor of the World Trade Center’s north tower in Manhattan. He and 12 other General Telecom workers were killed on September 11, 2001.
For the youngest brother the event became a turning point.
A communications major at Seton Hall University, Class of 1999, Gardner had been working in public relations for the Grey Global Group in New York City. Gardner had just started graduate school on the Saturday immediately preceding September 11, studying for a master’s degree in publishing.
But “after 9/11, I pulled out” of graduate school, he says. Within six months — “fueled by the desire to make sure he was remembered” — Gardner had also left his corporate public relations job to begin a series of nonprofit endeavors that would land him at the State Museum in Trenton.
Even today, memories of 9/11 endure. One of the first challenges in his new job in Trenton: The development of a 10th anniversary 9/11 exhibit that will open in September and run for a full year. For this exhibit, the museum plans to reach out to schools and people throughout the state. “It should be of interest to people throughout the state to connect to an event that is part of their own history,” he says. “New Jersey played a central role in 9/11; it lost so many people and had so many people who volunteered. There were so many great civic responses that New Jersey should be proud of.”
Gardner grew up in Belleville. His mother worked seven days a week as a waitress to help support the family, and his brothers entered the working world straight from high school to help her out. As the man of the house, Harvey taught Anthony early lessons about the value of money and work.
“When I turned 16 I was obsessed with saving money to buy a car,” Gardner says. “I only had one year to save and Harvey made me promise — he would match whatever amount I was able to earn on my own.” Gardner managed to save $600. Harvey, who was 26 at the time and working fulltime as a salesman, “matched me dollar for dollar as promised. With his help, I was able to buy my first car, and he taught me a valuable lesson about working hard for the things that you really want in life.”
Gardner’s nonprofit endeavors began with the World Trade Center United Family Group (today called the September 11 Education Trust). Gardner was also involved in an interactive September 11 educational program, which is currently being used in about 2,000 schools around the country (learnabout9-11.org). “It’s the first of its kind as a comprehensive national curriculum,” says Gardner.
Not only did Gardner raise a half million dollars for this educational project but he also served as lead project director. “It is really a museum education program,” he says. “It uses primary source materials as a way to engage students.” These materials include oral histories of people directly affected by the tragedy. The lessons are complemented by a DVD, which includes a two-hour interactive timeline, with each entry having its own video and digital content.
The foundation is still in existence, although a few years ago the board evolved its primary mission to a focus on education, teacher training, and outreach, says Gardner.
Following September 11, Gardner was also an active volunteer, following other family members involved in different causes. He was a member of the Families Advisory Council for the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, which was charged with redeveloping the site. Just 25 on 9/11, Gardner was always the youngest family group leader at the table. Most of the family leaders were older parents or spouses of victims.
Gardner’s focus as part of the council was on historic preservation of the World Trade Center artifacts. “Probably the most significant contribution I made for the site was that I coordinated the effort to preserve the footprints of the towers,” he says.
As a result of Gardner’s efforts, the World Trade Center site memorializes the towers in a symbolic and realistic way. Two large reflecting pools at ground level symbolize the absence of the two huge buildings, but what Gardner is responsible for exists seven stories below the earth’s surface, where the actual footprints of the towers still stand, with square, steel columns delineating each tower footprint. “I built a coalition with 9/11 family members and preservationists to urge redevelopment officials to preserve the footprints of the towers,” Gardner says. “All these years later, as a result, the footprints at the bedrock are actually being incorporated into the museum design.”
Gardner believes that the setting of the primary exhibition within the footprints of the tower will leave a powerful impression. “I believe that this authentic experience will resonate with people as long as the museum exists,” he says. “It will connect people to that time and event.”
During his work on the tower footprints, Gardner discovered the museum studies program at Seton Hall University, which was a perfect fit for him. “I had a passionate interest in American history and also understood the importance of artifacts and objects as teaching resources,” he says. So he signed on, and as part of the program did a six-month internship at the Princeton University Art Museum as coordinator of the museum’s friends program. He handled membership issues, helped plan events, and did fundraising and outreach.
In addition to his master’s in museum studies, Gardner earned a master’s in public administration from Rutgers and an M.S. certificate in nonprofit management from Seton Hall.
Gardner left his nonprofit in 2009 because he felt that he had brought the foundation “to a level that I was truly proud of,” he says. He had completed the September 11th Education Program that now is used in thousands of schools across the country. Gardner then became director of development for Meridian Health System’s Riverview Medical Center in Red Bank. “It was a good opportunity to get more experience in nonprofit management and fundraising,” he says. “One of the challenges you have in any nonprofit is working to build a robust fundraising program.”
The experience also taught him what it is like to run a small nonprofit. “You have to wear many hats. You’re the press person and fundraiser; you run the program and evaluate the program.”
Gardner says his MPA program at Rutgers prepared him for the transition from small nonprofit to the large-scale, state-run operation he now heads. He also attributes his aptness for the position to the fact that he is a father, with three daughters, ages 8, 4, and 2. Gardner’s children love to come to “work” with him on the weekends, which he says is the best time for families to come. “It’s rare that you work someplace where your kids actually want to go,” says Gardner, who now lives in Bay Head.
The museum is now working on a natural history highlights exhibit, which should open by May. Its purpose is to respond to the disappointed fans of the natural history halls that are now closed for a major renovation. At the same time, the museum is working hard to raise the funds necessary to reopen the natural history halls.
The museum also has a temporary gallery space on its second floor, with a new show of Lewis Hines photos from the early 1900s. Titled “Glass Boys and Cranberry Girls,” the exhibit is about children who worked in New Jersey industry. In addition to the photos, there are artifacts and activities in which youngsters can take an ID card and learn about a child worker from New Jersey’s past. For example, they can learn what a typical day was like and how much the cranberry bags weighed, to give them a sense of living history.
“If you’re interested in history, science, or art, we have it,” says Gardner. “This is New Jersey’s Smithsonian, and we want people to have sense of pride and build their own memories with their families.”
#b#New Jersey State Museum#/b#, 205 West State Street, Box 530, Trenton 08625-0530; 609-292-6464; fax, 609-599-4098. Anthony Gardner, executive director. www.newjerseystatemuseum.org.