Discovering a museum treasure in Newark, N.J. Work of art: Made up of four linked buildings and including a mini-zoo, the museum with the city's name houses fine collections.

March 24, 1996|By Randy Kraft | Randy Kraft,ALLENTOWN MORNING CALL

The Newark Museum sneaks up on you.

Not only can you drive right by before noticing it, despite banners hanging above Washington Street, but it's also much larger than it seems when you first step inside.

In fact, it's promoted as the largest museum in New Jersey. It's in the heart of Newark, the state's largest city.

"It's a sleeper," said volunteer tour guide Barbara Palmer. "It's a tremendous museum."

The museum has one of the 10 finest collections of American art in the United States, according to museum director Mary Sue Sweeney Price, and it has the largest collection of Tibetan art in the Western hemisphere.

Ms. Price said the museum is a "wonderful place to celebrate world cultures. Objects from our collection are on loan to exhibits throughout the world, in London and Paris and any number of American cities."

You may never have heard of Newark Museum, because it has the misfortune of standing in the shadow of New York City. Newark is just 10 miles west of Manhattan, home of many world-class museums. "If this museum weren't so close to New York, it would be known as one of the great museums in the country," suggests Ms. Price.

"Visitors often ask, 'How come I never heard of this place?' " said Barbara Lowell, the museum's membership director.

Although primarily an art museum, Newark Museum includes an opulent Victorian mansion, a children's mini-zoo, a planetarium and a fire museum, Newark's oldest schoolhouse, even a colorful Tibetan Buddhist altar that was consecrated by the Dalai Lama.

With 80 galleries, there's more here than you can absorb in one visit. Yet you can get a good feel for the place in a single afternoon. It's not so overwhelming that you'll be frustrated, feeling you couldn't do it justice.

Rather than a single classical-style structure, the museum consists of four buildings. Their interiors are architecturally and physically linked, providing access without stepping outside.

The museum, which charges no admission, gets about 260,000 visitors a year.

"There are very few places you can go for free these days," said Ms. Lowell. "But you can bring a carload of children here for an afternoon."

Ms. Price hopes many first-time visitors will be drawn by a new exhibit, "Heaven on Earth: Orthodox Treasures of Siberia and North America," opening April 17 and running through July 14.

Liturgical art

It will feature 237 works of liturgical art -- icons, gold and silver vessels, altar coverings and vestments -- representing the varied constituencies of Orthodox Christianity.

Ms. Price said Newark is the only museum on the East Coast that will show the exhibit. She added that many objects in it never have been displayed in a museum.

A companion exhibit will feature about 30 pieces from Orthodox parishes throughout New Jersey.

The Newark Museum also has an extensive collection of 18th- to 20th-century American paintings and sculpture, arranged chronologically on two floors. Winslow Homer, Georgia O'Keefe, Frederic Church, Thomas Cole, Charles Willson Peale, Henry Tanner, Joseph Stella and George Segal are among the American artists whose works you can admire.

The museum also has Asian art, as well as work from Africa and the Pacific. One gallery displays classic antiquities from Egypt, Greece and Rome; another has American Indian artifacts; a third has coins and currency.

Brewers' mansion

What you might remember most is Ballantine House, a 27-room brick mansion built for the family that once brewed beer in Newark. The furnished mansion features beautiful stained glass, woodwork, draperies and wall coverings. Guides call it one of the finest Victorian homes in the United States.

In 1985, its 100th anniversary, Ballantine House was designated a National Historic Landmark.

Visitors see eight period rooms and six galleries filled with decorative art objects found in homes since the 1650s.

The mini-zoo houses more than 100 animals, representing 43 species -- tropical fish, screech owls, tamarins, lizards, snakes, tarantulas, Egyptian spiny mice and more.

In addition to free daily guided tours, another nice feature is printed guides for individual galleries.

Center-city Newark was an ominous unknown, but when visiting the museum, I found it no more intimidating than any other city. Newark's high-crime reputation is more a perception than a reality, said Ms. Price. She said the downtown is full of business people and university students during the day.

"You can park at the museum and come right in the door," she said. She agreed that better signs are needed to help visitors find the museum.

Ms. Price said the museum -- primarily supported by the city, county and state -- is open only on afternoons five days a week because of budget cuts five years ago. But it is open in mornings for schoolchildren and other groups.

She added that government financial support is how the museum manages to avoid charging admission fees.

Pub Date: 03/24/96

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