When the New Jersey State Museum reopened its doors in mid-July 2021 after closing in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the public welcomed the good news. Finally having the opportunity to once again explore the museum’s vast collection in person was a reprieve to those looking to get back to normal and do something that didn’t involve binge watching television.
Boasting 2.4 million artifacts in fine arts, natural history, archaeology, ethnography, and cultural history, the NJ State Museum offers a variety of activities and sites for the whole family to enjoy. Prior to the pandemic, the museum and the War Memorial, a community rental center managed by the museum, served more than 185,000 visitors a year. Now, NJSM Executive Director, Margaret O’ Reilly, is ready to get back to business.
“We knew that we had to reopen,” O’Reilly said during a recent phone interview. “There were museums that opened before us, but we waited to make sure that the staff felt comfortable, and that there would actually be visitors, because obviously you don’t want to open and have no one [visit].
“We knew that we were viable, because we were getting lots of phone calls [asking] ‘When are you opening?’”
After working out the logistics with the museum staff and following strict CDC guidelines that included implementing a mask mandate for visitors, social distancing, and taking down interactive exhibits on the advice of industry professionals, the NJSM reopened to the public, allowing members first access.
On July 24th, David Parris, Curator of Natural History, led visitors a short tour of the changes to the “Written in the Rocks'' exhibition, which highlights the installation of the nearly complete Hyposaurus skeleton, a prehistoric crocodile that lived in what is now Gloucester County about 65 million years ago. It was previously on view in the exhibition “Jersey Crocs Rule.”
The following day, visitors dropped by for a tour of changes to American Perspectives: The Fine Art Collection galleries, led by O’Reilly. Presented in a chronological format, these galleries feature selections from the museum’s fine art collection, reflecting the times the works were made.
The short-term exhibition “Fine Feathered Friends: Birds as Mainstay and Muse,” which opened right before the museum closed, is also now open for viewing. “Fine Feathered Friends” brings together an assortment of artifacts and specimens to explore their status as an important ecological mainstay and their historical role as a muse for New Jersey artisans. (Images and information are also available on the museum’s Flickr)
“Nobody got to see it,” said O’Reilly, sounding disappointed that the exhibit didn’t get the recognition it deserved when it first opened, “but Nicholas Ciotola [the exhibit’s curator] had enough materials that he did a video series on that exhibition, so it was able to live while the museum was closed.”
Although O’ Reilly and her staff had to pivot to virtual programming to keep the museum's community engaged and buy new equipment and software, some of the programs and activities the museum created during the pandemic lockdown introduced them to a new audience online, which she now views as a gift.
A collection of Trenton sculptor Edward Marshall Boehm's life-like ceramic birds on display in "Fine Feathered Friends: Birds as Mainstay and Muse." Photo from NJSM’s Facebook page.
“We had to figure out which of our programs could be adapted to the virtual realm. How could we do it from home? Did we have the images that we needed? Did we have the text we needed? Did we have access to the information about objects? How do we do that?
“We also needed the equipment and software and cameras that would be the right resolution for webcasting. That happened in the early days, where our education staff realized what we needed and stepped up.”
People who come to explore the free to low-cost state museum may not be aware of the work and level of detail it takes to run a museum of NJSM’s caliber.
“The bulk of what museums do is really behind the scenes. A big portion of the collection is never on display,” said O’ Reilly. “The collection [in the museum] is so vast. There is no way that I could take care of those collections by myself every day. I could check on them, but I’m a fine art person. I couldn’t look at an archaeology artifact or a natural history artifact and say, ‘That looks like it’s okay to me,’ so other staff had to begin to come in to look at those things.”
Margaret O’ Reilly, New Jersey State Museum’s executive director
O’Reilly, who started working at NJSM 33 years ago as a Publications Art Director, came into work each day during the pandemic as an essential employee, ensuring her staff had everything they needed to work from home and that the museum’s collection was well-maintained.
“You need to make sure there is no water infiltration and that there are no pests coming—particularly in a building that’s empty—pests love that kind of environment. One of our primary paths is to protect the collections. These are the treasures of the people of New Jersey, so that’s why I was coming in every day.”
Looking ahead, O’ Reilly said that the NJSM is currently renovating its planetarium to include a brand-new, top-of-the-line 8K resolution system that will open at the end of October for Halloween weekend.
“I think there is a lot for folks to learn here. I think they hear about the state museum and wonder if it’s about the government, and it's so not. It’s about many different things that interest people on all levels. I think if families come, if individuals come, if young people come, they will find something that interests them and spark conversation, and that’s what we want to do.”
New Jersey State Museum is located at 205 W State Street in Trenton, New Jersey.