Wait, that sounds terrible. But the museum – New Jersey’s largest – was great.
An older friend of mine who likes to wear green wigs and roller skates to parties invited me to visit him at the Newark Museum, where he works. I’m never one to turn down a free, behind-the-scenes tour of a museum, so off I went on three modes of interstate public transit.
I admit I had no expectations about the museum. Newark is close enough to New York City that it can’t compete with the Big Boys – the American Museum of Natural History, the Met, MOMA, etc. How could it attract an audience that could easily take a 30 minute train ride into Manhattan? The delightful answer: it attracts visitors through a combination of local, community-targeted programming and a focus on education through its galleries. Too much jargon? In short, the museum focuses on the visitor, not the art historian or snooty donor, through classes and instruction through its collections.
The museum has really neat workshops for adults and kids in an ample and tricked-out education wing. Glass blowing? Metalworking? Enameling? Six three-hour sessions for around $200 in a room with big windows and the right equipment? Yes, please. Oh, the benefits of available land outside of New York City.
The Newark Museum also takes a creative approach with its exhibit halls. Sure, it doesn’t have 80-some-odd Jackson Pollock paintings. It’s got one and it lives in a room with 8 other abstract expressionist works from the same time period, giving the visitor a sense of the moment of which Pollock’s work was a part in art history. And there are even labels with guiding questions to help the viewers interpret the paintings for themselves. Context! History! Meaning! Wowee.
The museum also incorporates, as a historic house museum, the Ballantine Mansion – home of the Ballantine Brewery family. If the idea of waxing nostalgic about the days when beer in cool retro cans was brewed in the New York area doesn’t attract the sophisticated museum-goer, then I don’t know what will.
As for the natural sciences, the museum features a planetarium and a mini-zoo. Cool beans.
The Newark Museum serves its community of school children and adults who are looking for a more supportive museum experience than the one provided by some of the Manhattan Giants. It does what they can’t because it doesn’t have to serve the tourists or nearly as many annual visitors. My roller-skating friend claimed that it ranks second in the nation among museum spending on educational programming. I was extremely impressed by the museum and happy that I made the trip out there, light rail and all.
New Jersey, I salute you.