With its 100th anniversary approaches, the Hopewell Museum is busy making changes.
Over the past year alone, the museum has launched a series of initiatives, including the development of programming for local schools, creation of community forums to engage the public, exhibition of new displays on topics including the Revolutionary War and family life, establishment of the first ever Hopewell Valley Heritage Weekend, and improvement of its object and archival collections to increase accessibility to visiting researchers and the community.
Joe Klett, the president of the Hopewell Museum, says that while these changes are important, says that it has been equally important for the museum to communicate them clearly to the local community.
“People were used to it operating in a certain way,” Klett says. “You went to the museum and saw the same exhibits that you saw the year before. When people hear that we’re rethinking some of it, they think we’re changing what the purpose of the museum is. They think that we’re not going to tell the same stories that we’ve told in the past.”
But Klett and other board members say that this is not the case. While the museum is in the middle of curating new exhibits, it is also looking for ways to keep its older displays engaging and educational.
“There are good things to build off of, but there’s always room to make things better, different and more engaging,” said Klett. “That’s what organizations like museums are supposed to do. Our job is to bring people through the door, and that means changing things up from time to time.”
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The Hopewell Museum has changed considerably since its establishment in 1922. The museum was initially incorporated under the Hopewell Free Public Library and Museum Funding and Building Association, which had been tasked with housing a small collection of antiques donated by Sarah D. Stout, a resident of Hopewell Valley. After briefly occupying the building that now houses the Hopewell Borough Library, the association moved to its current location at 28 E. Broad St.
Over the next few years, various community members, including Susan and Eleanor Weart, were instrumental in expanding the association’s collection, bringing in items that they believed accurately represented life in the Hopewell area. As the collection grew and space in the building became tight, the association relocated the library to a separate address.
Two years later, the museum expanded again after David H. Hill made a two-story addition to the building. Hill, a former Hopewell resident, had lived a few doors from the museum as a child. His collection of Southwestern Native American crafts was displayed in the new space, alongside the museum’s growing collection of photographs, maps, weapons, tools, charters and other items.
Though the museum has changed its exhibits and expanded its collections, it has maintained its original mission to preserve and display village life in America. Like the maps, records, and furniture donated in 1922, most of the museum’s items have come from the surrounding area, and many of these items were used by previous generations of Hopewell residents.
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The museum’s most recent changes come following the departure of two of its curators, Beverly Weidl and David L. Blackwell. Weidl had served as the museum’s curator for nearly 50 years before stepping down last year. Blackwell, who succeeded Weidl, died in April, just days after he was appointed Hopewell Township’s first Historian. Weidl died in September.
Blackwell was widely regarded as the best candidate to become historian, given his extensive work to preserve and educate others on the township’s history. Prior to his work at the museum, Blackwell had served as the president and secretary of the Hopewell Valley Historical Society, was an active member of the Hopewell Township Historical Sites Committee, and was a founding member of the Hopewell Township Historic Preservation Committee.
“We were very glad to have David on board originally as our archivist and then curator,” Klett said. “With his passing, the community lost a very wonderful resource in terms of what he knew and his willingness to share it with people.”
The museum has continued the work that Blackwell left behind, archiving Blackwell’s research papers on local history and genealogy and furthering the museum’s partnerships with other community organizations.
One partnership that Blackwell had helped develop was that between the museum and the Hopewell Valley Historical Society. The relationship between the two organizations grew out of Pennington Borough’s and Hopewell Borough’s 125th anniversary celebrations, both of which Blackwell and the organizations contributed substantially to. Following the success of the celebration, the museum and historical society formed a program committee to plan similar public educational programs together, including lectures and presentations.
“There was this realization that we could complement each other’s work quite a bit,” said Klett. “One of the great things about partnering with the Hopewell Historical Society is that between the two boards, there’s a lot of expertise in different areas such as local history, archeology, archives, and genealogy.”
Klett believes that the collaboration between the two partners has made the museum’s exhibits more engaging for the community. Most recently, they organized a group of experts to deliver presentations in local classrooms and facilitate visits to the museums. Klett says the museum has seen considerable interest in the newly renovated Native American exhibit.
“In the past, we had a lot of eclectic Native American objects in the museum that weren’t really representative of the Native Americans that were in the Hopewell area,” Klett said. “You weren’t really getting the story about the Indians in the area when you saw what was on display. What we want to do is tell you the story of the Native Americans in the Hopewell area — the story of when the Europeans settled, what the interactions were, how things worked, and what the Indians received in exchange for the land. We’re looking at the records that document those interactions and consulting with the New Jersey Tribal Council on the artifacts in the museum. We want to present the information in a way that’s much more educational than it was in the past.”
Building off the momentum of its partnerships with the New Jersey Tribal Council and the Hopewell Valley Historical Society, the museum is looking to developing its relationships with other local organizations as well, including the Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum, Hopewell Valley Heritage Committee, and Hopewell Public Library. By pursuing these partnerships, the museum hopes to create exhibitions and programming that touch upon previously unexamined aspects of history and include different parts of the community.
One prominent initiative supported by all of these organizations has been Hopewell Valley’s Heritage Weekend, a weekend of events designed to celebrate the area’s history and culture. For the inaugural event last year, the museum partnered with the Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum to present a reenactment of an encampment by the 6th Regiment, United States Colored Infantry, an African-American battle regiment that fought for freedom in the Civil War. To accompany the reenactment, the museum hosted a lecture about African-Americans from Mercer County who served in the army.
The museum hopes to continue the success of Heritage Weekend next year. Though they have not selected a theme, Klett said that the museum is considering a display featuring its Native American collection to highlight the recent changes to the exhibit. He hopes that events like these will continue to strengthen ties between museum and community.
“There are so many aspects of this that we’re open to rethinking that we don’t know exactly where this goes,” said Klett. “We do know that wherever we take the museum going forward, it will be more participatory. We want to make sure there is community involvement by having people tell us what they’re interested in seeing and how we might use the museum to be part of the bigger picture of what’s happening within this community.”