Morris Museum: A Century of Curiosities

Morris Museum, New Jersey's third largest, is celebrating its 100th anniversary with delightfully unexpected exhibits.

The stately Morris Museum as it appears today, after several expansions.
Courtesy of Morris Museum

Don’t be fooled by the Morris Museum’s stately appearance. Step inside the imposing red-brick mansion in Morristown and you’ll discover surprises around every corner.

The museum, New Jersey’s third largest, is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, partly because its curators have not lost their passion for the unexpected. Recent exhibits included Hollywood movie costumes, rock and roll, rare teapots, vintage bathing suits—even a larger-than-life portrait of Elvis Presley made entirely of Rubik’s cubes.

“Our juried Toying With Art show hit a nerve with every age group,” says associate curator Angela Sergonis of the exhibit in which Elvis showed up. “The challenge was to turn everyday toys like Rubik’s cubes, Legos, toy soldiers and crayons into playful, sophisticated pieces of artwork.”

The permanent collections are no less varied, ranging from dinosaur artifacts to model trains to the world-class Murtogh D. Guinness Collection of 750 mechanical musical instruments, music boxes and automated figures. Among the latter are a clown that loses its head, a 10-foot-tall one-man band and a fairground organ that belts out ragtime tunes.

“We’re able to present high-quality programs through a small but dedicated staff and 400-plus volunteers,” says executive director Linda S. Moore. The nonprofit relies on admission fees, fund-raising initiatives and the support of foundations and corporations. Some 450,000 adults and children visit each year.

Among the current exhibits (through October 27) is An Evening of Elegance: 200 Years of Costumes for Special Occasions, organized by Sergonis and costume curator Elizabeth Laba. “We’re eager to present a collection of magnificent gowns, including one that was worn to Abraham Lincoln’s inaugural ball,” says Sergonis.

The museum sprang from humble roots in 1913—a tiny collection known at the time as the “cabinet of curiosities.” Families returning from travels donated what were considered to be exotic items. Local schoolkids were fascinated, and the collection took off from there. In 1964, the museum moved to its current location, once the summer home of the Frelinghuysen family. The mansion is full of nooks and crannies and secret hiding places. Last year, behind a bookcase, the staff discovered a forgotten alcove packed with antique weapons. Once cataloged, the treasures will be exhibited next year.

Since 1986, the institution has also boasted its own theater—a rarity among museums. The 300-seat Bickford Theatre presents dramas, comedies, thrillers, musicals, a children’s series and a jazz showcase.

Morris Museum’s black-tie centennial gala will take place September 21. For sponsorship or ticket information, contact the museum at 973-971-3705.

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