Did you know New Jersey is home to several FREE family attractions? The New Jersey State Museum, in Trenton, is one of them. Like some of New Jersey’s other great family-friendly attractions, this one has been on our list to visit for quite a while. A week or so ago, we loaded up the kids and some friends and made the trip.
The New Jersey State Museum was fairly easy to get to and while we didn’t quite see the free parking garage, we did find convenient, affordably-priced, street parking. With a little help from my friend, I got my minivan parallel-parked and we headed inside. My first impression… I was blown away by the beauty of the inside. On the outside, the New Jersey State Museum looks like any other building. Inside, it’s part art museum part museum of natural history. Beautiful artifacts and specimens encased in glass cases. And ahh, on a HOT day the museum was a very cool place to be. The air-conditioning on the 3 floors not only keeps the rare artifacts and exhibits in pristine condition but it also kept us cool.
The New Jersey State Museum is a great museum or perhaps we should say museums. It is 4 museums in one covering natural history, archaeology and ethnology, fine art, and cultural history. There is also a great planetarium with several affordable family shows. (More on that later.)
The 1st Floor exhibits include:
- Natural History
- Natural History Highlights
- Sampling Life: Preserving Fluids and Natural History Collections
- Archaeology & Ethnology
- Science History Art: Explore Your State Museum
- The Works Progress Administration and Archaeology in New Jersey
What’s unique about the New Jersey State Museum is that most of what we saw was from New Jersey, from marine animal specimens to dinosaur bones. My boys had never seen animals preserved in fluids before so this was a first for them and opened up a great discussion about science. We talked about why some of the animals on display were stuffed and preserved in their original form while others were on display in jars of water. They saw animals eggs of every size, got to sit in a large clam, and touch the skin of a skunk. We’ve got some great pictures in our Facebook Photo Gallery. (On a side note, we later learned in some areas of the museum you are not allowed to take pictures. So before you snap away ask the guards if it’s okay.)
Next up on the 2nd Floor are the exhibits of:
- Fine Art
- American Perspectives: The Fine Art Collection
- W. Carl Burger: Artist as Curator & Selected Works
- Cultural History
- Cultures in Competition:
Indians and Europeans in Colonial New Jersey
- Cultures in Competition:
The second floor contained some really interesting exhibits that again opened up my boys’ eyes to new ideas. The art was so diverse from photos and paintings of normal everyday things to everyday things portrayed in abnormal ways. There were, of course, the abstract paintings, in which, you are never really sure what the artist had in mind when they created their piece. But that is the wonderful thing about art and why it is such a great thing to expose our children too. It teaches them there is beauty in everything and just because someone may not see it, does not make it less beautiful or special.
My boys, being boys, loved seeing the weapons of yesterday, too in the Cultures in Competition exhibit. Telling them arrowheads used to be created from stone is one thing. Seeing it in front of them is completely different.
The 3rd Floor exhibit includes:
- Pretty Big Things: Stories of New Jersey History
This floor is not only BIG on exhibits: it’s BIG on fun. After checking out big beds, big canoes, big quilts and more my kids had fun designing family seals (like New Jersey’s state seal), creating patchwork quilts, and putting a puzzle together. If you explore a little further you’ll also find a question and answer exhibit area where kids lift up questions to find the answers below describing the exhibits on display. It’s a floor you definitely don’t want to miss.
Did you think we were done? I saved, my boy’s favorite part for last, the planetarium. It’s in the lower level/basement of the New Jersey State Museum. Now, we’ve been to planetariums, but again the New Jersey State Museum Planetarium is unique. Outside its front doors is a wall-size, interactive computer exhibit that allows kids to see the many faces of earth, the moon, and other planets. The pathway to the inner planetarium is dark lit up by visually-stunning, space-themed displays. Then, there’s the planetarium, the largest of its kind, seating up to 150 visitors and able to project more than 6000 stars. Images abound all around you in this 360 degree inner dome. When we watched the train come by during the Dawn of the Space Age show, it really felt like we were standing at the side of the train tracks. When the rockets launched into space, my boys felt like they had a front row seat on the launching pad. Yeah, it was that cool. It took my boys on a trip through time, through our history of exploring space, without them ever leaving their seat or even needing an oxygen tank. Most days the planetarium shows up to 3 different shows. Admission to the show is $5 a person and tickets can be bought at the door.
What else does a parent need to know about the New Jersey State Museum?
- Stroller-Friendly – The floor plan at the museum is very spacious and is handicap-accessible. You will have no problem navigating a stroller or wheelchair.
- Elevators– To make it easier to move exhibits from floor to floor, the elevator is HUGE, bigger than you may have seen before. As parents that’s a big help for us too no holding your breath and squeezing in so everyone can fit in. There is also only one elevator and it is centrally-located and stops at each floor.
- Bathrooms– There are bathrooms on the basement, first, and third floor of the museum. Since they are all handicap-accessible, there are buttons you can push to have the door open out towards you. And while I know this wasn’t created for us moms, I always appreciate stumbling upon this. It means I won’t have to straddle the door’s opening trying to hold the door open and push a stroller through at the same time.
- Gift Shop – The gift shop is tucked away on the 2nd floor. It’s there if you want to buy some souvenirs to remember your trip and support the museum. But it’s also not something that will be a tease to your kids as you are trying to get out the door.
- Food– There isn’t anywhere in the museum to buy food. We brought our own picnic lunch and enjoyed it outside of the museum. There is a nice large grassy area plus a few benches you can sit on to eat your lunch.
- Museum Rules – At first, I couldn’t understand why there were so many guards on staff at the museum. Then, it occurred to me, these are some very priceless, unique items that are being shared with us. None of them would be easy to replace. Of course, the guards are going to be protective of them. But it does not and did not come at the cost of our enjoyment. There were only a few times my boys had to be reminded to walk. ;) And because your kids are probably like mine, I share with you the New Jersey State Museum‘s advice from their website.
- Can you touch?
- Please “touch” with your eyes, never with your hands. All of us have oils, dirt, or other residue on our hands that can affect the artifacts we are touching.
- When you can touch artifacts, there will be signs or a guide to tell you it is allowed.
- Can you play around?
- Please only walk in the museum.
- Can you talk loudly, whistle or sing?
- Please talk, laugh and share your feelings, but be respectful of other visitors.
- Can you eat inside?
- Please finish food and drinks before entering the Museum, and do not chew gum. These items can attract unwanted visitors, such as insects and rodents that can damage the Museum’s artifacts. A café is located on the first floor of the Museum complex, where you will be able to take a break, relax, and enjoy light refreshments.
- Can you write or draw?
- It depends. There are some exhibits within the Museum where students are welcome to draw and even take photographs. For example, writing and drawing is allowed in Pretty Big Things: Stories of Jersey History. However, in other areas of the Museum it is not allowed. Please ask the guards on duty.
- Can you take photographs?
- It depends. There are some exhibits within the Museum where students are welcome to take photographs. For example, in Pretty Big Things: Stories of New Jersey History, photography is allowed, but we ask that you do not use a flash. However, in other areas of the Museum, taking photographs is prohibited. Please ask the guards on duty before taking photographs.