"The focus is on what makes a home,” says James Moss, the registrar for the New Jersey State Museum’s archeology and ethnology division. “We use the lens of traditional Native American houses and house models made in the 1930s.”
Moss is part of the team that mounted the museum’s exhibition “Hearth and Home,” on view through September.
The hope that he and curator Greg Lattanzi have for the exhibition is that it “spurs people to learn about traditional Native American culture and to think about what it is that makes a home in their own minds, to step outside of your every day existence and make those connections.”
The catalyst for the exhibition was the museum’s collection of Work Progress Administration (WPA) funded models — and on display are dozens of storage box-sized figures depicting Native American cultures across the nation.
“We had these interesting house models in storage for decades,” says Moss. “(Greg) was looking at what we could do with it and looked for how to make an interesting exhibit.” The result is one that focuses on three main through lines: daily life, foodways, and ceremonies.
“The models were made to bring out to schools and have school children looking at them. They had stopped being used in the early 1970s,” says Moss. “In some ways the exhibition continues the models’ purpose. They are still educational tools. But if you leave things in the warehouse a long time, they become important as part of the collection.”
There was also another level of interest for the museum staff. “To us the interesting tie was to the Indian Site Survey, a WPA-funded project in the 1930s and ’40s.” That project also involved the museum’s former curator of archaeology and noted figure in state history, Dorothy Cross. She oversaw the archaeology exploration of the important New Jersey site, Abbott Farm in Hamilton.
While Moss is unsure of who actually made the models — records are unclear or lost — he assumes that Cross was involved. “As far as we can tell they’re pretty accurate. Some are more specific than others, but whoever made them did their research. “
There are a few other mysteries regarding the models. One involves the number that had been created. “We know we lost some, but we don’t know how many there were to begin with,” says Moss.
Another involves the exact materials used. While exhibition labels identify some of the materials, it is only part of the story. “As far as we can tell, it’s wood and natural materials. I don’t know what the figures are made out of, some form of plaster or clay. Some you can tell have a balsa wood frame and some plaster over it. If we did it today we would keep a list of everything used so if it needed to be repaired we’d know how to approach it.”
Moss says while some of the models have been shown from time to time, this is the first time they have been shown as a group.
“It was really cool,” Moss says. “I’m interested in the WPA and its historic connection. They’re 80 years old and survived all that time. It is kind of special.”
Unlike the collection, Moss is fairly new to the museum: two and half years. As registrar he manages, documents, and inspects the department collection. His role in this exhibition included photographing the artifacts before they went on exhibition, cleaning and repairing models, and assisting in making sure objects were safely displayed.
Before coming to the NJSM, Moss was the coordinator of academic engagement at the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia. “I worked with students and professors to provide access to the collections for studies.”
The 37-year-old smiles when asked about his career path. “I am from Princeton, Illinois. I got my undergraduate degree at the University of Illinois in Urbana. I was the first generation in my family to go to college. My father was a salesman for casting foundries. My mother had several different office jobs over the years. My degree was rhetoric: creative writing, short stories, that kind of stuff.”
Then after college, “I was a Pizza Hut manager,” he says. “I did that for five years, but I didn’t want to be a Pizza Hut manager for the rest of my life and archeology sounded interesting.”
Moss says his initial interest was “pseudo archeology: Ark of the Covenant and early civilizations that no one knows anything about. Pseudo archeology got me interested in learning about actual archeology, and that was even more interesting. It was archeology and anthropology, the study of humans throughout time. Who isn’t fascinated?”
He attended the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee in a program developed in partnership with the Milwaukee Museum, obtaining a M.S. in anthropology and a certificate in museum studies.
“At the time I wanted to be an archeologist, but it wasn’t until a summer when I was in the field digging empty holes along roads that I started to rethink that, and working in museums become more practical and enjoyable,” he says.
After an internship at the Kenosha Public Museum in Wisconsin, he says he got lucky and landed at the University of Pennsylvania. “I got a six-month position taking over for a registrar on maternity leave. And they created two new positions. And I become permanent.”
He remained there for nearly five years. “I really enjoyed my job, but in the end I was scheduling rooms and movement of objects. So the opportunity to come here and work closer with the collections seems a great opportunity.”
He lives in Palmyra and is in a long-term relationship. “She got her degree in archeology, studying human remains. She currently works at the National Museum of Jewish History in Philadelphia.”
“I think the models themselves are the most interesting,” he says about the exhibition. “The other artifacts enhance what is going on the models. It’s not just the elaborate fancy things, there are some everyday things at well.”
An example is a model depicting a crucial part of New Jersey’s Lenni Lenape people, a wigwam: a circular one-family structure framed with sapling trees and covered with bark. The model shows how the structure was heated and how its occupants slept. Next to it is a display with two sacred drum beaters bearing carved faces representing the male and female aspect of the creator and used during the annual Big House ceremony.
“One of things I really like is how the backdrop on the two ends (of the exhibition area) shows the juxtaposition of the warmth of the Southwest and the cool of the Arctic,” says Moss. “One of the underlying points of the exhibit was on the adaptation to extreme environments, where people have lived and made their homes.”
Moss says he also likes the models of southwest cliff homes used by ancient Pueblo peoples and the Navajos. And while they were not products of the WPA — they were created during a United States Geological Survey — “they’re from the late 19th century,” says Moss. “The New York museum of Natural History has the same models.”
Moss says he hopes the exhibition affects visitors in a very specific way. “I hope they find it interesting and can connect it to their own lives. Again it’s the idea of what makes a home: is it where your family is? Even in my own life the definition of home has changed over the years without me being able to articulate exactly why. I’ve moved so many times, and I ask is this a home?”
Hearth and Home, New Jersey State Museum, 204 West State Street, Trenton. Tuesdays through Sundays, 9 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. Through September. Free, donation requested. 609-292-5420. statemuseum.nj.gov.