Trenton City Museum at 40

Posted in Exhibits

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Forty years ago, upon the urging of Rosalie Dietz, then-mayor Arthur B. Holland and the City of Trenton took a chance on establishing an art and history museum in the beautifully restored, historic Ellarslie Mansion, located in the midst of the city’s most precious gem, the Frederick Law Olmsted-designed Cadwalader Park. The Italianate villa designed by Philadelphia architect John Notman opened its doors as the Trenton City Museum in 1978 with some of its signature architectural elements still missing. The porte cochere was soon added on the North side of the building, establishing that as the entrance to the museum.  Some years later, iron railings were installed on the veranda, exact replicas of the original. The interior restoration was designed for galleries, the original interior configuration having been lost to history when the house was transformed into the “monkey house,” during its period of ignominy. The city continued to take a chance on the “little museum that could” by adding an elevator, air conditioning, and security systems, restoring the bathrooms and refurbishing the office wing.  There are even plans on hold for adding a classroom or a cafe in the footprint for the conservatory shown in the original plans for the building.  Someday. . .


Many donors took a chance on the museum by giving valuable Trenton-made artifacts to the growing collection, especially porcelains and ceramics from the wide-ranging Trenton pottery industry. The historical and cultural collection grew to include such intriguing items as an anvil, a piece of Roebling wire cable, Trenton-made furniture and tiles, paper advertising fans and postcards, a Horsman doll, an Atlas snowglobe, condoms made by Youngs Rubber, a pair of Lee overalls, and a scrapbook put together by John A. Campbell of the Burgess & Campbell Pottery Co who later became president of the Trenton Banking Company. Today there are more than 6000 objects in the museum’s collection.


Artists took a chance on the museum and exhibited in the first floor galleries where their work is shown to best advantage.  Some of those artists have been invited back to display one work each and to tell the story of what Ellarslie has meant to them in their art career.  That exhibit, Pushing 40, is on display during the celebration from September 15 – November 10.


The museum started with a small hired staff and the support of both a mayoral-appointed commission, in charge of the facility itself, and a non-profit formed to collect the objects for preservation and display. In 1990, newly elected Mayor Douglas Palmer disbanded the commission, leaving the dedicated members and trustees of the Trenton Museum Society as the sole support group for the museum. In 1998, for the 20th anniversary of the museum, the Museum Society raised funds and installed two rooms of the finest porcelain objects on permanent display.


Over the first thirty years, the staff of the museum grew from two part-time employees to two full-time and two part-time employees. In 2010, Trenton suffered the shock of reduced contributions from the State of New Jersey and the museum’s staff was reduced to zero. TMS took a deep breath, assessed the situation and with artists’ and members’ continued backing, took another chance on the museum by stepping up to include running the museum as part of its charge.


Today, the museum hums with activity: revolving art exhibits of works by local, regional and even artists with national and international reputations, changing historical and cultural displays, classes and workshops, lectures and demonstrations, the museum shop – a treasure hunter’s delight, musical events, and more entice residents and visitors to Trenton to pour through the doors.


As the museum grew in reputation, artists and patrons spread word of this surprisingly interesting little museum in the park with its significant collection of Trenton decorative arts, fine art, and historical objects. The Trenton Museum Society invites all to “Take a Chance” with us in the celebration of the past forty years and join us as we look forward to the exciting revelations of the next forty years.