You won’t find many places where Billy Joel and Erin Brokovich rub shoulders with ancient shark teeth and fossilized raindrops.
The second is “What Came Before US,” a collection of fossils from all 50 states that examines what life looked like in the U.S. many years before that. Millions upon millions of years, to be exact — before any humans at all showed up.
The latter exhibit holds a special place at the museum in the Morris County hills. Many of the fossils are part of an extensive collection that its curators don’t often get to show the public.
Anne Motto, the museum’s assistant curator, says the prehistoric items help show “the many different faces our country has gone through over the course of its life.”
“Our history is so much broader and deeper than what we think of it,” Motto explains. “We know our human history, but there’s millions of years that we sometimes don’t think about because there is no written record. So you are looking at fossils and using science to understand what has happened before.”
“What Came Before US” — which runs through Sept. 23 — breaks up the U.S. into four different regions, and presents at least one fossil from each state.
Many of the pieces were already in the downstairs storage of the museum’s geology department, since the dinosaur exhibit on the top floor includes only a sliver of the facility’s fossil collection.
“This is just a tiny segment of all the ones we have in our collection,” says Motto, who was born and raised in Randolph. “It was refining our list down from thousands to about 120 that we finally used.”
Still, the curators had so many fossils on hand, they almost had all 50 states represented.
“When we were looking through the list of all the fossils (we had), I started seeing state name after state name after state name coming up,” Motto recalls. “We got very, very close on our own.”
They reached out to collectors to fill in the gaps.
The exhibit’s main case features a trove of discoveries found in New Jersey — shark teeth, whale vertebrae, amber from Sayreville, fossilized raindrops and ripples from Livingston.
In the surrounding displays, you’ll find a dinosaur footprint of an anchisauripus from Connecticut. Petrified wood from Arizona. A bison horn from Alaska. A mammoth tooth from Texas. Ancient fish from Wyoming.
And the massive tooth of a megalodon from Georgia. (Fittingly, the exhibit is open at the same time as “The Meg,” a summer blockbuster about a megalodon in modern times, terrorizing the ocean.)
The exhibit’s oldest fossil is from New York — a 500 million-year-old stromatolite. A stromatolite is an impression left behind by cyanobacteria, “which, through photosynthesis, releases oxygen into the atmosphere and allows oxygen-breathing life to form,” Motto explains.
“It’s one of the oldest in our collection,” she says. “And it’s actually a pretty significant fossil. All things considered, it’s probably the most important one in the exhibit.”
“Without the cyanobacteria that made the fossil,” Motto adds, “there wouldn’t have been oxygen in the atmosphere for there to be us today.”
Overall, Motto says, what you’ll find is that the exhibit tells “many different stories.”
“Today we have mountains, streams, forests. We have all these different types of animal species and plant species,” she says. “But that’s a single moment in time. These fossils are showing you millions upon millions of years of millions of moments in time.”
For example, one story the exhibit tells: The Midwest was once covered in water.
“You are going to find lots of marine fossils out in the Midwest,” she explains. “Out in South Dakota, Kentucky, states that are thousands of miles away from the ocean. That doesn’t make sense in the context of modern-day Midwest. But when you learn it used to be covered by a shallow sea, suddenly the U.S. has a completely different face, and the fossils are now in context.”
The exhibit also includes pieces from two places where fossils are rare: Hawaii and New Hampshire.
“We were able to turn that into a story,” Motto says.
The story goes: The island of Hawaii started forming only about five million years ago. Volcanos form igneous rock, and fossils need sedimentary rock to exist.
“There are fossils in Hawaii. They’re just not common,” Motto says. “And you’re certainly not going to find a dinosaur there.”
So what about New Hampshire? That’s the Granite State, Motto explains.
“It is pretty much covered in granite,” she says. “They have some fossils, but it’s very rare to find them.”
Again, you need sedimentary rock to find fossils.
Hence, the exhibit has lava from Hawaii and granite from New Hampshire.
Motto hopes visitors come away realizing that for all the focus on dinosaur fossils around the world, discoveries within the U.S. “are so varied and exciting on their own without having to look outside our borders, and there is so much to learn from them.”
“And we will never be done learning from them,” she continues. “As much as those fossils are absolutely ancient, the science of studying them can be very recent, very modern, very cutting-edge.”
Down the hall, you’ll find a much newer era. There lies the “The Boomer List,” a touring exhibit on loan from the Newseum in Washington, D.C., put on in collaboration with AARP. This is its only stop in New Jersey.
The exhibit — which runs through Sept. 9 — features portraits that award-winning photographer and filmmaker Timothy Greenfield-Sanders took of 19 notable figures from the Baby Boomer generation. Boomers are those born between 1946, the year after end of World War II, and 1964, the year The Beatles arrived in America.
Greenfield-Sanders chose one from each year of that timespan, from different professions and of different genders and races. All of them are photographed in “simple, direct-to-camera portraits, with a basic backdrop, and one single light,” he explains.
“It’s a very broad range of people and of years and of experiences,” Greenfield-Sanders says in a video accompanying the photos. “If you were born in ’46, ’47, those early years, you ended up in Vietnam. If you were born in the late ’50s and early ’60s, punk rock was an issue for you.”
“I like the idea that this could be a way to show the achievements of a generation,” the photographer continues. “The selection is very much like a Rubix Cube.”
The subjects stretch from author Tim O’Brien (born 1946) to actor John Leguizamo (1964) — the latter of whom is pictured without his pants on.
Each photo is accompanied by an interview with that figure, explaining what that era meant to them. Actor Samuel L. Jackson (1948) discusses race.
“Everything that I’ve gone through informs me and my opinions in a way, because I am a child of segregation,” Jackson says. “I lived through it. I lived in it. I was of it.”
Rock star Billy Joel (1949) recalls discovering The Beatles. “They didn’t look like movie stars, and they were from Liverpool, which is an even worse-sounding name than Hicksville,” he remembers. “My path was clear. And I hooked up with a band.”
Former astronaut Ellen Ochoa (1958) talks about breaking gender stereotypes — in space. “One of the things that changed during my life was I didn’t feel that I was limited, that I had to make choices,” says Ochoa, who is now director of the Johnson Space Center.
Also pictured are actress Kim Cattrall (1956), football legend Ronnie Lott (1959), environmental activist Erin Brockovich (1960) and AIDS activist Peter Staley (1961), among others.
Along the walls is a timeline showing all the Boomers have witnessed: the Cold War, Jonas Salk’s polo vaccine, transistor radios, TV dinners, Elvis, the space race, JFK’s death, Vietnam, Watergate, “Star Wars,” personal computers.
And in one corner is a display where you can press a button and smell the scents that helped define the generation: baby powder, representing how more than 76 million babies were born in that time; fresh-cut grass, representing how many Americans relocated to the suburbs then; and incense, representing the era of Woodstock and “flower power.”
Alexandra Willis, the Morris Museum’s main curator, says they were happy to welcome the exhibit because it’s one “we felt audiences of all ages could connect and engage with.”
“The ‘Boomer’ generation has had and continues to have a profound impact on the world in areas of sciences, technology, art, and music,” Willis explains. “With a history and legacy still being written, the photography of Timothy Greenfield-Sanders provides a revealing look at the evolving stories of 19 ‘Boomers’ who are relevant to all of us, in one way or another.”