October is Discover Jersey Arts Month, as declared by Gov. Chris Christie. We’re celebrating with Your Jersey Arts Museum Moment, a contest that encourages you to visit one of 14 great museums in New Jersey and share your experiences for a shot at winning a private party for you and 12 friends. In honor of this, we asked writer Shen Shellenberger, lifelong museum-goer and Philadelphia Museum of Art employee, to share her memories of museums.
We often think of museums in a traditional sense – as imposing institutions where artwork and historical objects are collected, studied and displayed. But, to my mind, a museum is a place, of almost any shape or style, where the experience that someone takes away with them is what really matters. Whenever I travel, I always seek out a museum or two to visit, not only to put another notch in my culture belt, but because I believe that by observing the objects on display in a local museum, we find out what is significant to that place and the people who live there.
I think my first memorable museum experience was in Junior High School, when our Civics class took a trip to Batsto Village, a historic site in the South Jersey pinelands. At Batsto, I was got a glimpse of another time – the way people lived and worked and thought – and yet I had traveled less than an hour from my Cherry Hill home. That had a big impact on me.
Another early – and ongoing – museum memory is visiting Lucy, the Margate Elephant. As a kid who spent a lot of time at the Jersey shore (no, not THAT Jersey Shore), I was always intrigued by Lucy. And I doubt I’ll ever forget the first time I went inside – entering through her front leg and climbing the narrow stairs to the main room, where you can see the Atlantic Ocean through her porthole eyes. And, if you’re brave, you can continue up to the top for a panoramic view from the howdah on her back. For me, the way it felt to be in that remarkable structure combined with the information I found in the collection of photographs, postcards and letters, that indelibly established Lucy as a significant part of New Jersey’s colorful past.
For many summers when our children were small, we rented in Ocean City. During a long rainy stretch one year, when we were scrambling for ways to occupy the kids, we stumbled on the Ocean City Historical Museum, which now shares space with the Art Center. One exhibit there –about the 1901 wreck of the sailing ship, The Sindia – was especially captivating. We read actual newspaper reports, saw grainy sepia photos of the beached ship and the raging sea, and marveled at the cases that contained items discovered after the ship ran aground. Seeing this exhibit was almost as good as having eyewitness accounts of the story and left me with the impression that I had a personal connection to that nugget of history.
That sense – that what’s public becomes personal – can happen at museums that showcase visual arts, as well. I recall being delightfully surprised on my initial visit to the Noyes Museum in Oceanville. Not only did I enjoy seeing the exhibitions, but the building itself – a lovely light-filled structure with full-length windows that provide a view of the lake and adjacent wildlife refuge, is quite special.
A recent first-time visit to the Morris Museum in Morristown reminded me that there are gems like this throughout the state that offer remarkable permanent collections, performance programs, educational opportunities, and not-to-be-missed special shows.
And I never go to Grounds for Sculpture without offering Mr. Johnson a word of thanks for creating this unique place for sculpture, art, music, and much more.
These are just a sampling of my museum moments. How about yours?