“Every Mask a Blank Canvas”: The Hoboken Historical Museum’s Newest Exhibition

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Face Masks have become a part of everyday life since COVID-19 swept the world. Some people view them as a shield of protection, some view them as a daily nuisance, but Bob Foster {director of the Hoboken Historical Museum} views them as a sign of the times, a historic symbol in our world’s history that tells the stories of many people. Museums play a vital role in society — they safeguard our past, and use it as a learning tool to share with others what life was like in the past. The Hoboken Historical Museum is doing just that with its new “Every Mask a Blank Canvas” time capsule contest and exhibition. 

The Face Mask Exhibition

Bob Foster, the Executive Director of the The Hoboken Historical Museum, invited all Hudson County artists to transform standard disposable face masks into one-of-a-kind artworks, and to submit them to the museum for an upcoming exhibition {that is aptly a sign of the times}, “Every Mask a Blank Canvas.”

“I don’t think many people saw the face masks as a way to be artistic, they just see it as this cumbersome thing that they have to wear each time they go out. To think of it as creative apparel was inspiring,” Bob points out.

It almost seemed impossible to find comfort in anything during self-isolation and quarantine but art was one of those things that provided a source of happiness all over the world. “The face mask contest was something that relates to now. We have some great exhibits in the museum right now, but they aren’t really speaking to the present. This contest was a way to engage artists, who are a really important group of people at this time, as they inspire us with their creativity,” Bob shared.

“The idea was to take the simple blue mask that so many of us use every day, and ask artists to transform them. We didn’t give them any additional guidance. They could be political, or purely artistic, there were no restrictions. Some people suggested that I introduce a theme, but I realized that you can’t corral the artist,” Bob explains to us. 

Many of the face masks had political designs and reflected the Black Lives Matter movement. Others were purely artistic and depicted landscapes, shapes, people, and more.

Read more: A Hidden Gem: The {Hoboken} Historical Museum

There were about 60 submissions total from artists all over the county. “We got some great results, and it was really hard to pick a winner. I picked winners that beautifully reflected our current political climate, as well as created simple, whimsical designs. I didn’t even think there would be a response, I was just hoping for a few submissions,” Bob shared. “Before launching this contest, I had started my own project of photographing masks on various statues in town, but it just wasn’t hitting the mark. So, I decided to throw it out to the artists, and see what they come up with.”

The masks will become part of the museum’s collections and many will be hung in a display case right outside of the museum entrance, inside the walkway, ultimately highlighting a unique time in Hoboken, Hudson County, and world history.

“The best part about the exhibit is being able to display them in the walkway for everyone to see. When we were initially hanging them in the display boxes, many people stopped to look at them, ask what they represented, and even took selfies with them. There is a genuine interest in them,” says Bob.

The Contest Winners

{Photo credit: @hobokenmuseum}

The winners and runner-ups were announced on June 24th.  The winners were Paul Leibow and Noreen Heslin. “Paul Leibow created a protest collage in mixed media to reflect the Black Lives Matter protests,” Bob shared. “Noreen Heslin created a hand-embroidered design depicting a ‘20’s-era woman wearing a face mask with a beguiling smile sewn onto it. Noreen was nice enough to donate her $250 cash prize back to the museum.”

Of course, as with any contest, there were some amazing runner-ups as well. “ The runner-ups were Lily Zane, a Hoboken artist that hand-embroidered her mask with words inspired by themes of the day, and Joan Vergara, an NJCU student who portrayed a woman with her fist held high, reading “Power to the people,” Bob Foster tells Hoboken Girl.

Other Upcoming Exhibits

This contest has inspired another project that is currently taking place in the museum walkway. Maria, a Hoboken resident, has volunteered her time to set up a table in the walkway with masks, and crafts to decorate face masks with anyone interested. It’s on a first-come, first-served basis. Bob shares, “Walgreens was generous enough to donate 100 face masks to us for this project. We have been encouraging visitors to make two, one for them to take, and one to add to the museum’s collection. Many of the participants have been kids. It’s a really fun activity for them.”

That’s not all. To continue the preservation of people’s experiences during this pandemic, Bob has set up a station in the walkway with a postcard stand and a permanent display where visitors hang their postcards. If the museum is closed, there will still be a few empty postcards on the outside for people to use, pens, a hole punch, and string to add it to the display. 

See more: Must-Visit Art Galleries in Hoboken

“We are encouraging people to write a postcard about their current experience of the pandemic. It’s sort of a postcard artifact for the future. Just like 9/11, and Superstorm Sandy, people often ask what it was like to experience those events, and the museum isn’t always open to tell them. That’s why I plan to leave the postcards hanging on the display for anyone to read, and get a taste of what people have felt during this strange time,” Bob shares.

The Museum Reopens

In case you missed the news, the Hoboken Historical Museum is once again open to visitors as of June 2nd, at a reduced capacity. All visitors are required to wear masks and keep a safe six-foot distance. A sink and hand-sanitizer stations are available in the museum for visitors to use. 

Museums, too, have been affected by the pandemic in more ways than one. “It’s been a rough patch, for sure. We’ve been closed to the public since March 15th. We’re the type of museum that likes to get to know the people who visit, it’s almost like a chamber of commerce. Many of the visitors are from out of town, and we often tell people where to eat, and what to do in town,” says Bob.

The museum has adjusted to the times like many local businesses, and offered virtual access to exhibits, as well as hosting virtual events on Zoom. Bob explains, “We’ve had a few virtual events, but it’s really not the same as people walking through the door. We are excited to be open, and back in action.”

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Victoria is a fourth-generation Hoboken native, BNR in the Mile Square and part-time in Jersey City. Through playing softball for fourteen years, playing the trumpet for the Hoboken High School Redwings Band, and graduating from New Jersey City University, these two cities have a special place in her heart. When she isn’t Style Assisting or volunteering at Symposia Bookstore, Hoboken Fire Museum/Hoboken Historical Museum, she’s exploring everything the Concrete Jungle has to offer. You can catch her at art exhibitions, local festivities, traveling, diving into a new book, thrifting or indulging in some form of arts and crafts.


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