Historic Morven: A Window Into America's Past

Finalist 2020

Spanning six galleries and 200 years, "Historic Morven: A Window Into America’s Past" is a permanent exhibition at Morven Museum & Garden that tells the story of America through the history of the house. The exhibition includes stories of its most famous dwellers—founding fathers, entrepreneurs, and New Jersey governors—but also, for the first time, poignant and heroic accounts of women revolutionaries, people of color, servants, and slaves. The design layers applied vinyl, original artifacts, custom millwork, and vertical screen-printing to showcase the museum house as a palimpsest of history, revealing how America and its identity were shaped over time.

The seven medium-size rooms that make up the first floor of the mansion divide the home's 200+ years of history into generations, separated by color. Each generation is represented by the dwellers in the house, who were connected to major movements and events such as Manifest Destiny, the Civil War, Colonial Revival, and the Industrial Revolution. By leveraging the biographies of the inhabitants, the design provides entry points into major themes and debates. A timeline runs along the top of the walls, situating events at Morven within the context of broader American historical events.

Morven Museum & Garden's new board and president set out to tell the story of America through the history of the historic landmark house—including, for the first time, stories of servants and slaves. On the walls, original paintings and artifacts are layered with screen-printed maps and handwriting, evoking an emotional connection to the visceral sensation of the past. Narratively, the voluminous text is separated into digestible vignettes, object labels, and quotations to create a sustainable pace of reading. This allows for adjacencies that offer a more nuanced experience; for example, the revolutionary fight for liberty is juxtaposed with narratives about servants and slaves, offering opportunities for the audience to reflect on untold histories. Another room carries the names of all the known inhabitants of the house, including servants and slaves.

The new design thereby transforms Morven's function as a national historic landmark: it is not merely to preserve the past for the contemplation of an elite few but instead to explore and uncover history as a living document that demands constant scrutiny and reflection on the basis of more democratic access for all.

We crafted a celebratory yet nuanced narrative through a palimpsest of visual devices, including large-scale screen printing on walls. We respected the historic landmark architecture yet created a contemporary counterpoint with selected architectural interventions like solid mahogany casework, hanging plexiglass frames, and large, movable panels to enhance the storytelling. Custom object cases and benches blend seamlessly into the exhibition, carrying physical artifacts from the house's different eras.

"People are both overwhelmed and excited to see the new galleries. The majority of what I hear from our guests is sheer delight. I have done many projects in my 22 years of museum work—I am most proud of this.” Jill M. Barry, Executive Director

Design Firms: 

Isometric Studio

Client: 

Morven Museum & Garden

Project Area: 

3500 sq. ft.

Open Date: 

September 2019

Project Budget: 

$200,000 USD

Photo Credits: 

Isometric Studio

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