Jersey City has been in need of a museum much like the Hoboken Historical Museum — and there is finally one in its soft opening stages. The Historical Museum of Jersey City is not quite fully formed, but that’s by design — and the new museum has opened its doors to the local community by holding open houses to help turn the space into a thriving cultural center with the hope of opening for real in the autumn. Journal Square residents specifically, the general Jersey City population, and all of us with attachment to the Hudson County region are invited to join in the development of this new community-strong institution housed in the pre-Revolutionary War era building at what is now 298 Academy Street. Read on for a look into Jersey City’s brand new historical museum.
A Museum of + for the People
For the last few months, the new Historical Museum of Jersey City has welcomed all comers into the landmark Apple Tree House to share accounts of the past that need airing and exchange ideas around the role that this new cultural center might provide. These open house events have been attended by academic historians, armchair history buffs, local community boosters, and quite a number of neighbors of the fabled old house who have lived nearby for the many years since its use as the Quinn Funeral Home. Many neighbors of the Apple Tree House are thrilled to visit and see the protected eighteenth-century stonework and ceiling beams as they recall the decades during which the building was in active decay, when its survival was in question.
The open house events are in anticipation of an early autumn grand opening. Attendees to these doughnuts and coffee community conversations are abuzz with ideas and concerns about the stories they wish to see represented in a house with its foundation dated to a time when enslaved people were tasked with all the hard labor that shaped historical events, yet mostly remained unnamed and uncredited.
It takes a village to raise a cultural center that is truly representative of the widest community. Museum board member Jerome Chance emphasizes the need to draw oral histories from the lived experiences of long-time community residents and to call in those who are shaped by the legacies of that history, like the students of P.S. 11, the Martin Luther King School, who meet at the oldest site of a continuous public school in the Americas. The range of expertise found within the museum board, its extensive advisory teams, volunteer outreach efforts, and local visual and musical artist highlight programs are part of a very intentional process to bring in the whole village.
An Autumn Birth is Planned
The first exhibition of the new museum will center on the era of the infamous Jersey City mayor “Boss” Frank Hague. The exhibit will focus less on Hague himself and more on the profuse period of his political career when Hague was mayor from 1917 to 1947. That era saw the building of the Holland Tunnel and Pulaski Skyway; Bing Crosby performed on the stage of the fabled Loew’s Jersey Theatre; Red Scare propaganda shaped local discourse; and local power holders fought dirty in competition for the future they wished to see.
Along with myriad community welcoming events spread throughout the coming months, the museum will open its doors for the Journal Square Community Association’s Bergen Square Day festivities on Saturday, September 10th. Their hope is to then open the inaugural exhibition before 2023 begins.
The Apple Tree House location places the museum in Bergen Square, the site of a Dutch settlement in the seventeenth-century New Netherlands colony. Unsurprisingly, when Dutch history is mentioned by one local history enthusiast, another quickly brings in the vital importance of highlighting Lenni Lenape viewpoints within each museum project. It is exactly that “yes, and” spirit that bodes so well for the future of the Jersey City Historical Museum.
An Interdisciplinary History Experience
The Jersey City Historical Museum is a “with, not for” endeavor, meaning the group doing the work will draw in new participants with each project. Museum-goers should not come to a museum event expecting merely to be lectured to. They should expect, instead, to participate in the joyful process of building rich historical narratives through music, art, dramatic storytelling, and play.
Speranza Theatre Company artistic director Heather Wahl is in the long process of surveying local interest in dramatic history telling. Speranza means “hope” in Italian and the company brings just that for those who look to the sharing of history as a truth-telling exercise. This nonprofit women’s theater has set up shop in the attic space of the new museum, from which they plan to continue their mission to present challenging new plays and develop exciting educational content.
Each of the museum open house events features a Jersey City visual artist pop-up art exhibition and a musical concert. The April 30th program featured artworks by Lucy Rovetto and music by guitarist Hekuran Beluli, a student at New Jersey City University who hails from Albania. The May 21st event shone a spotlight on paintings by JR Nolan with music provided by MinIo Class, the organist at St. Nicholas Catholic Church in Jersey City Heights. The next public open house event will be held from 1PM – 4PM on June 25th.
Lucy with her artwork