The art of collecting has become a theme of sorts at the New Jersey State Museum where exhibitions have been highlighting objects obtained for the museum through the New Jersey State Museum Foundation. One that recently closed was “Foundation@ 50: Celebrating Five Decades of Support.”
Now on view on the second floor Riverside Gallery is “Objects Count,” subtitled “A Decade of Collecting at the New Jersey State Museum.” It can be seen through Sunday, April 28.
Here the museum’s curators have honed in on the idea of collecting as a human impulse and attempted to put an institutional spin on that personal activity.
To do so they frame the exhibition with the following thought: “People like to collect objects. Some seek items of aesthetic beauty — hand-crafted or visually striking objects to display inside their homes. For others, the motivation is to gather. The thrill is in hunting down hundreds of examples of one particular type of object.”
Institutions made up of collectors also share that spirit, but the curators say there is a difference. “Museum collections are not confined to living rooms and basements of private residences. The items that museums acquire belong to everyone. They are discovered, researched, cataloged, displayed, and preserved in the public trust for educational purposes, in perpetuity. The 2.5 million artifacts and specimens currently found inside the walls of this building belong not to us, but to you.”
Previewing the exhibition, the entrance text says it “brings together objects collected over the past 10 years by the museum’s four subject bureaus — archaeology/ethnography, cultural history, fine art, and natural history.”
But the texts do more and provide a history that puts the entire collection in focus.
Here we learn that a New Jersey Geological survey begun in 1836 “became the cornerstone of a state geological museum — the precursor to the New Jersey State Museum.”
Today, with an estimated 100,000 specimens, the New Jersey State Museum Natural History Bureau represents the state’s natural history and highlights the great variety of New Jersey wildlife spanning millions of years.
That includes the fossilized New Jersey reptile track from the Triassic Period (about 200,000,000 years ago). Found in Hunterdon County, the sandstone slab “contains hundreds of small footprints of Rhynchosauroides, a lizard-like reptile. Reptile tracks are well known from the Triassic of New Jersey, but few specimens have such a huge assemblage of hundreds of tracks. The mudflat with soft sediment made it suitable for preservation of the delicate impressions.”
Visitors then learn that in 1912 there was an archaeological survey of New Jersey under the direction of the New Jersey Geological Survey and American Museum of Natural History’s department of anthropology and that “these artifacts are the foundation of the State Museum’s archaeological collection. Over the past 106 years an active, ongoing field research program has added to the collection and yielded substantial knowledge of New Jersey’s original people.”
The evidence is in the arranged display of arrowheads discovered in Salem, New Jersey. Their creators lived in New Jersey centuries before Europeans arrived on the state’s shores.
The European colonization informs the main thrust of the museum’s cultural history collection that documents “the everyday lives of people living in New Jersey from the 17th century to the present.”
This division began in 1924 as the decorative arts collection and focused “on decorative, yet functional products like ceramics, furniture, glass, and silver.”
The name cultural history “was later chosen to better characterize the all-encompassing subject matter of the collection that goes beyond the decorative arts and ranges in scope from military artifacts to antique toys to historic textiles.”
Among the recent acquisitions include several vases created by the Trenton Pottery Company between 1935 and 1942 when “people called Trenton the ‘Staffordshire of America’ because of its reputation for pottery,” write the curators. It’s a gift from the New Orleans Museum of Art in honor of John Kroth Chittim.
Other objects include two African-American dolls. “Black dolls have a rich history as precious heirlooms,” museum signage says. In the 1950s Pauline McCabe received these dolls as a gift from her neighbor in Atlantic Highlands. The heads are made of unglazed ceramic, known as bisque. One of the heads is marked with the name Maggie Head, a mid-century maker of doll parts.
Then there is the 1946 television, RCA’s Model 630TS. Known as the “Model T” of televisions, the Camden-made television that could be set on a table was one of “the first widely produced televisions available to American consumers.” The price was $400, approximately $5,100 in today’s economy. The television was a gift of the David Sarnoff Library.
Now take a look at the circa 1929 electric-powered model railroad set by the Dorfon Company. The Newark-based company was founded in the 1920s by two German brothers who brought their train-making skills to New Jersey from Nuremberg — still an international capital for toy trains. They named the company using parts of their mother’s full name, Fannie and Dora.
And finally there is the NJSM’s fine art collection of nearly 13,000 works of American art including paintings, drawings, sculpture, prints, and photographs — with many highlighting New Jersey. While the images depict scenes from the 18th century to the present, the fine arts bureau was established in 1964 when the museum was moved from the New Jersey State Annex and into its current building in the Capitol complex.
New work includes “Fog,” a print by Kiki Smith, an internationally known artist and daughter of prominent New Jersey-born American sculptor Tony Smith. Smith is known for exploring “issues of the body, spirituality, and the human condition” and here collaborates with Chinese-American poet Mei Mei Berssenbrugge by illustrating a poem that the writer describes as “illuminating the psychological closeness and distance between people.” The work was presented to the New Jersey State Museum by the Brodsky Center for Innovative Editions, founded by Princeton artist Judith Brodsky.
Another work by Sam Gilliam, an innovative American abstract artist who says his self-described “constructed paintings” cross “the void between object and viewer, to be part of the space in front of the picture plane.” In addition to this untitled work using fabric, Gilliam is represented in the museum’s main gallery and in a mural in the Richard Hughes Justice Complex. The new work was donated by longtime museum supporter, member of the museum’s Minority Arts Committee, and Trenton resident Larry Hilton.
And let’s close with Aubrey J. Kauffman’s gift to the museum, his 2012 photograph “River Factory.” In addition to work as a contributing writer to U.S.1, Kauffman is a former New Jersey Network photojournalist, past president of the Trenton Artists Workshop Association, and instructor at Mason Gross School of the Arts and Mercer County Community College. He uses photography to “explores urban architecture and human impact on the environment” and “views and organize banal yet complex images.”
The take-away from such a show is that individually each object tells a story about our state, our country, our world, our universe. Taken together they underscore how a museum is a collective memory — our collective memory.
A Decade of Collecting, New Jersey State Museum, 205 West State Street, Trenton. On view through Sunday, April 28. Tuesday Through Sunday, 9 a.m. to 4:45 p.m., donation requested. 609-292-5420 or www.statemuseumnj.gov.