Mission & History
Interpreting the past, discovering the future, through Art, Sound, and Motion.
The Morris Museum creates opportunities for lifelong learning, discovery, and creativity, driven by the contemporary interpretation of its Guinness Collection of Mechanical Musical Instruments and Automata as well as its general collections. The performing arts add further unique perspectives and dimensions of interpretation.
The Morris Museum acknowledges that it is situated on the traditional and ancestral territory of the Munsee Lenape people, and we honor their history and contributions to the community and culture of our region.
In 1913, objects collected for display in a curio cabinet at the Morristown Neighborhood House formed the beginning of the Morris Museum Collection. Originally known as the Morristown Children’s Museum, education has been an intrinsic part of the Museum’s mission from the start. Mrs. Aldus Pierson, the House’s first head worker, introduced children to world cultures through the exploration of cultural artifacts. Generous donors began giving Mrs. Pierson interesting objects that they had acquired in their travels around the world. By 1927, the collection had expanded to seven rooms encompassing the first floor of the Neighborhood House’s annex. Displays included colonial and 19th-century household articles, European, South American and Asian artifacts, rocks, minerals and fossils from around the world, and children’s toys.
In 1938, the Museum moved to the Maple Avenue School building and shared space with the Morristown Board of Education and the Morris Junior College until 1956. This enabled the Museum to enhance its programs for children and establish a link between its offerings and the curricula of area schools. This strong educational focus developed and continues to the present. The Museum was incorporated in 1946, and its collections and services continued to expand. During this time, the Museum was at the forefront of presenting new trends in museum education through the modern use of dioramas, panels and niches. The outreach education program began in 1950 with in-school presentations to eight Morris County schools including talks about American Indian culture.
The Museum’s first director, Mr. Chester H. Newkirk, made a significant impact on the development of the Museum’s programs, collections and services. During his 25 years of leadership (1956-1981), the collections of fine and decorative arts, toys, and American Indian artifacts were greatly enhanced. In 1964, having outgrown its fourth location, the Museum purchased Twin Oaks, the former Frelinghuysen estate. Today, the Georgian-style mansion functions as the heart of the Morris Museum’s operations. In 1969, the institution was renamed the Morris Museum of Arts and Sciences, reflecting its growing emphasis on visual art and the expansion of its offerings for all ages. In response to the Museum’s increasing activities, successful capital campaigns enabled additions to the facility to be built. In 1970, gallery space was expanded and a 312-seat theatre was added, which was later named the Bickford Theatre. In 1973, the Morris Museum became the first museum in New Jersey to be accredited by the American Association of Museums. In 1985, its name was changed to the Morris Museum. In 1990, the Museum complex was further expanded to 75,524 square feet.
The Morris Museum’s Bickford Theatre is a cultural hub for the very best of the performing arts in Morristown and beyond. Approaching its 50th anniversary, it will shine with even more dynamic, multifaceted, and relevant programming, including a partnership with London-based National Theatre Live; two film series and unique film festivals; traveling professional productions; a new lecture series; storytelling workshops; jazz, classical, and community concerts; children’s theatre, and more.
In 2003, the Museum was awarded the Murtogh D. Guinness Collection, one of the world’s most important collections of mechanical musical instruments and automata (robotic figures of animals and people). This collection further enhances the Morris Museum’s role as a major cultural center and travel destination for the arts, sciences and humanities. This 750-object collection reflects innovative technology, exquisite craftsmanship, compelling sound and important cultural heritage. In recognition of what is the Museum’s most renowned collection, the Museum launched a major capital expansion project that resulted in a 5,000 square foot gallery devoted to showcasing the history of mechanical music and automata, a grand Entrance Pavilion, and a sky-lighted Court and expanded upper galleries. The Museum’s mission and vision statements, adopted in 2019, place the Guinness Collection firmly at the heart of how the Morris Museum defines itself.
Today, the Morris Museum is the only accredited museum in the United States with a fully-rigged proscenium theatre and has the rare opportunity to integrate the performing arts into its museum programming. As one of New Jersey’s most dynamic cultural institutions, the Morris Museum and its Bickford Theatre serve more than 300,000 persons each year, two thirds of whom are children. Visitors are drawn from all twenty-one counties in the state and reflect the social-economic and ethnic spectrum that define northern and central New Jersey.