Field Report – Exploring the Morris Museum

For my observation, I decided to go to the Morris Museum in Morristown, New Jersey to observe their current exhibit titled “Pen to Paper: Investigating Famous, Historical Letters.” When I saw this current exhibit online, I figured this would be the perfect exhibit to talk about the preservation of these letters and what this exhibit tried to tell the world about the famous people who wrote them. With that goal in mind, I went to the Morris Museum to view the exhibit. However once I arrived I realized that the museum also had a “traveling exhibit” about music boxes from the Guinness collection, which I found far more interesting.

One of my favorite pieces from this collection was the Plerodiénique Sublime Harmonie Cylinder Music Box and Writing Desk (pictured below).

Another one of my favorite pieces was the Hall Clock with Compound Music Movement.

What interested me about this part of the exhibit is that they showed a lot of artifacts that had dual purposes, such as the music box that is also a desk and the clock that is also a music box. It was interesting to see that these items were created to have more than one function.

Another aspect that I enjoyed about this exhibit was that it encouraged the viewer to interact with the collection. There were display stands that had a hearing device and buttons that the viewer could press to hear what music from the presented time would sound like.

There was a wooden roller set out with pins. This was how songs used to be played during the time that these music boxes were created. It is was explained that each pin represented a note and each roller represented a song.

There was even a game that could be played at the end of the exhibit. For this game, you would put your hand on a speaker and try to feel the different vibrations that the different sounds made.

One of the reasons why I enjoyed this part of the museum so much was that it showed a time where technology was much different than it is now. These music boxes are major technological advancements when they were first created in the 1700’s-1800’s, even though in current society music boxes may not be considered a technology to a general viewer.

While touring the museum, I was surprised how small all the other exhibits were compared to the Guinness collection. I think this showed the emphasis that the museum wanted to place on this collection. I believe this is also the reason why I was much more fascinated with the Guinness collection over the other exhibits.  But even though the other collections were smaller, it seemed that the museum still made a conscious effort to show the comparison of older technology to newer technology.

In the picture below, you see that the museum showed how writing has changed throughout time in their Paper to Pen collection. When I was reading Jentery Sayers article on technology throughout time, I couldn’t help but think about the collections that I saw at the Morris Museum. Originally I thought about the music boxes and how they could be considered “technology instrumentalism”m which means that they were a neutral technology. But then I realized that the Pen to Paper collection could be an example of “technology determinism” which is technology used for social progress. As Sayer mentioned most of these pieces from these two collections would be considered “symbols of progress, modernity, efficiency, and mastery over nature” (Sayers).

In this picture it shows elements that could have been used to make different colors of ink that would be used to write or draw, it shows a few ink wells, different types of quills and calligraphy pens, a typewriter, laptop, and cellphone.  As the picture implies, these all became means of communicating. Just in this one picture, we can see the progress and change of technology throughout time.

What I found most interesting about this exhibit was its incorporation of current technology into the collection itself. It almost felt like the current technology used for this collection overshadowed the idea of the collection which was looking at old letters from famous people in history. I say this because in the room, just below one of the displays, there were two pairs of headphones and IPads that were showing a short film. Then on the wall, there was a television that told about the making of quill pens and how society portrays old quill pens wrong in movies since most of the time the hair of the feather is cut off to make it easier to hold. It just seemed like the focus was mostly on the current technology since the letters left a lot of white space on the wall, while the television area took up a lot more space and the museum had changed the color of the wall to draw attention to it (which you can see in the picture with the display of past/current technologies that is above). Also, the short film and the television were both a form of white noise in the room, which grabbed my attention and probably the attention of a general viewer, which took my attention away from the famous letters.

In the end, it was nice to see the different exhibits that the Morris Museum had on display. It was interesting to see their way of incorporating technology into their exhibits as a way to attract the audience to engage with their collections. Because of my experience with museums and my interest in continuing to work in a museum, it was interesting and educational to see how other museums use technology. 

Sayers, Jentry. (2016). “Technology” in Keywords for American Cultural Studies,” ed. Bruce Burgett & Glenn Hendler. NYU Press.

Morris Museum. Morris Museum.