By Steve Sears
The Morris Museum prepares to celebrates 110 years in 2023, and things keep getting better and better.
With a wonderful mixture of education and entertainment, all age groups are covered at this wonderful location at 6 Normandy Heights Road in Morristown.
“Gaby led the implementation of the Smithsonian Spark!Lab, and we just celebrated its one-year anniversary here, which is a huge endeavor for the museum,” says Morris Museum Director of Marketing and Communications, Marcus Romero.
Gaby Meyer is entering her second year as Director of Education at the Morris Museum, which welcomes school groups from preschool to 12th grade. “We have a bunch of programs for school visits and camps,” says Meyer. “Spark!Lab really helped to bring school groups back into the museum. It is from the Smithsonian and it is a hands-on invention space that incorporates the engineering design process. It allows everyone to act as an inventor, to create or innovate or tweak or change some sort of material. We have six different stations with things that range from a wind tunnel to build a vehicle to a towering teeter table. We have an exploratory phase place for our youngest friends, which is zero to five. There really is something for everybody. And what’s nice is in the world of STEM education, this fits very well into the curricular standards that are not only New Jersey-based but nationwide, where kids are encouraged to think of things in a different way.”
The Morris Museum always has a tour or activity that’s based around current exhibitions. “We have for the fall the same type of idea, where it’s a specialized tour and then an activity, and that exists for our Native American Gallery, our dinosaur gallery, our rocks and mineral gallery, and then the two galleries that have just opened and we have programming for that,” says Meyer.
“The museum and it’s over 100 years of existence has been so many different things,” says Brett Messenger, Curatorial Director of the Bickford Theater. “And I think at a certain point, it was trying to be everything to everybody. In the last few years, the Board of Trustees and the staff here have really examined the resources we have, and what’s the most dynamic way we can serve this community and where do we fit into this cultural landscape.” A lot of the museum’s attention is in its Moving Art and Musical Machines: The Guinness Collection, which is one of the most significant collections in the world of music boxes, automatic musical instruments, and automata. Adds Messenger, “That’s also about the history of music and technology, of art and technology. So it relates directly to what Gaby is doing in Spark!Lab, where these kids are. You see them walking in and coming out with such a twinkle in their eyes as they’re doing these really dynamic projects, and then they walk into the Guinness collection or one of our art exhibitions and see it in a different way. So, that also informs how I conceive of live arts at the Morris Museum; really looking at us as a place that can do things that are innovative, that involves technology, that are as entertaining as they are challenging, that make you look at something in a new way.”
Meyer and Messenger have been working hand-in-hand building theater experiences that have ties and links to activities, exhibitions, and Spark!Lab, exploring options out there so that children and family experiences can be multifaceted. “They can enjoy something amazing that Brett’s been able to find, and then we’re able to support in a back end, so it’s not a one off,” says Meyer. “It’s part of an entire day. It leaves a mark and a memory, and really secures or cements some of the ideas or the principles or the themes of the show, but that is in the works. I’m excited to have that be such a unique experience which is not currently offered anywhere else.”
According to Messenger, there are some things that really honor the history of the Bickford Theater, and one thing is its long standing Jazz series, which has enjoyed great success. Now, the theater also welcomes artists creating unique and unusual works, whose practices engage with technology in different ways. “A place where lots of world premieres are happening of works that will be performed in many other cities and other communities,” says Messenger, who then mentions another new, key component of the museum and theater’s offerings. “During the pandemic, when theatres went dark and obviously everyone that was in charge of theater wanted to find a way to connect artists and audiences as soon as possible, we were really, really lucky. In July of 2020, we built a stage on the elevated parking deck behind the museum, and we started the Back Deck, where we’ve had now 70 performances over the last three years. But for a short period of time, in addition to our jazz series, we were doing classical music out there, and we were really the only presenter of classical music in the United States.” The full Orpheus Chamber Orchestra performed last April at the Bickford Theater, and will return in November (with pianist Angela Hewitt) in the spring of 2023.
For more information about the Morris Museum, visit www.morrismuseum.org.