A touching exhibit: Morristown’s Macculloch Hall comes to grips with ‘interactive’

BY GEORGE, you can get a grip on our Founding Father, at the 'Please Touch' exhibit at the Macculloch Hall Historical Museum. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
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In Revolutionary times, it would have been the height of impertinence to lay a finger on General Washington.

Nowadays, at the Macculloch Hall Historical Museum, it’s encouraged.

A bas-relief portrait of our Founding Father is among more than 20 items at the Morristown venue that are truly…touching. Please Touch breaks the cardinal rule of curation by inviting patrons to get a grip on (selected) artifacts.

Museum Director Tricia Pongracz with GW-3D, at ‘Please Touch’ exhibit at the Macculloch Hall Historical Museum. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

“We want people to say, ‘This isn’t what I expected.’ We’re not just brown furniture,” says Tricia Pongracz, executive director at Macculloch Hall.

Like museum directors everywhere, Pongracz has been grappling with how to lure visitors back, post-COVID-19, and seeking novel ways to engage them when they arrive. Attention spans, it seems, grow shorter as entertainment options expand exponentially.

So she and her small staff have spent the pandemic modernizing their approach to 19th century local history.

The museum website (like the 212-year old Federal-style mansion on Macculloch Avenue) got a fresh coat of paint. Audio guided tours were recorded for the mansion and its idyllic garden. Many programs went virtual.

Please Touch is funded by a grant from the New Jersey Historical Commission.  A specialty printer in New York state created 3D portraits of Washington–who wintered in Morristown during the War for Independence–and also of Santa Claus, from an illustration by Thomas Nast. The famed muckraker was a fin de siècle neighbor of Macculloch Hall, which holds the largest collection of Nast’s works.

Tools of enslaved people at ‘Please Touch’ exhibit at the Macculloch Hall Historical Museum. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Visitors can hoist segments of rail and cable salvaged from the old Morris Canal, where George Macculloch was an investor. His children’s crude ice skates are available for the touching, along with a quill pen from the Boys Latin School that was a forerunner of local academies.

The elegant dining room welcomes hands-on appreciation of lizards etched onto a pair of exquisite china vases (weighted and secured to a pedestal with museum wax).

A back room challenges guests to grasp a bleaker historical token, a clothes iron that was a workday tool for one of seven enslaved African Americans who served Macculloch’s family.

Curator Ryan Hyman with sections of rail and cable from the old Morris Canal, at the ‘Please Touch’ exhibit at the Macculloch Hall Historical Museum. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Ryan Hyman, Macculloch Hall’s curator for more than 20 years, anticipates growing Please Touch with additional authentic items and reproductions, and more 3D illustrations, to keep things fresh.

A consultant who is blind advised the staff on making the museum, and its Please Touch elements, accessible to the visually impaired. Labels for touchable items include Braille descriptions. Guide dogs are welcome, of course.

And children. Hyman admits the idea of fingerprints on display items took some getting used to.

“Being a curator, you’re taught to ask people not to touch. I always felt bad about that,” he says.

The pieces are cleaned frequently, Hyman says. Even so, some guests aren’t comfortable touching shared surfaces just yet. Others still are adjusting to the museum’s concept.

“What we’re finding is our visitors are so used to being told no, that you have to tell people it’s okay to touch,” says Pongracz.

It’s more than okay; it’s imperative, she believes.  Call it the New-, or more aptly, the RetroInteractive.

Curator Ryan Hyman runs hand over ornate mantel at ‘Please Touch’ exhibit at the Macculloch Hall Historical Museum. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

“We are Morristown’s community museum. We are open to everyone, all ages and all learning styles. We want you to come in any time you want, and have an experience in the house that is unique to you,” Pongracz explains.

That involves visits mediated by your senses, instead of a screen.

Touching a sculpted portrait, visually absorbing a Nast cartoon, hearing the antique harp in the parlor, or smelling the roses in the garden “enhances how you experience the space,” Pongracz says, “and turns this from a passive tour to an active experience.”

These human interactions make history come alive, she says.

“Without people, the museum is a very lonely place.”

Macculloch Hall Historical Museum tours remain by appointment; regular weekend hours resuming soon. Admission: $4 to $8; age 5 and under, free. At 45 Macculloch Ave. To schedule a tour call 973-538-2404, ext. 10, or email here.  On May 1, 2022, Macculloch Hall will be among seven venues featured on an Historic District house tour. Tickets: $50. On May 7, the Hall will feature free activities in its garden for National Public Garden Day.

A 3D model of Thomas Nast’s Santa Claus, at ‘Please Touch’ exhibit at the Macculloch Hall Historical Museum. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

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