6 Specialty Museums in New Jersey (2023 Guide)

by Sue Fajgier
Specialty Museums in New Jersey

Winter feels too long sometimes, and the months from December until March often feel endless. However, colder temps don’t automatically mean we have to go into hibernation. It’s a wonderful time to get out there and learn about new things and explore hidden treasures – right in your own backyard. Below, we share with you a few of the more unusual – and our favorite discoveries right here in New Jersey.

1. Burlington County Prison Museum, Mount Holly

Opened in 1811 and in constant use until 1965, this Burlington County Prison is not only a historical wonder; it is an architectural treasure. There’s so much that makes this site unique and exciting – it’s hard to know where to start. Burlington County Prison Museum stands as a monument to a new way of thinking about incarceration; and was the first “modern prison” built in the United States. Architect Robert Mills was the first to humanize the prison population. The cells were designed for individual occupants and each cell contained a window and a fireplace. The prison grounds included a workshop area so prisoners could learn a trade. Because he was a Quaker, prison reform was a concern of Mills. This was notably also the first fireproof building constructed in America.

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Prison Museum Cell Block | Photography by Sue Fajgier

Unique Design and a Revolutionary Approach

The three-story prison museum is located on High Street in the Historic part of Mount Holly. We were greeted by Museum Attendant, Lauren Cunningham, who could not have been more helpful and a source of so many great tips. Lauren told me her favorite thing about the museum was the structure itself. The fact that 211 years later the building is still intact and serves as an education center and is designated a National Historic Landmark is truly remarkable.

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Prison Museum Entrance | Photography by Sue Fajgier

When touring the museum, there are lots of helpful information signs that highlight prison life and certain key events. You can learn about Ellis Howard Parker – “The Sherlock Homes of America” and his 40-year career.  You can read about the 1875 jailbreak, where four men escaped and not all were recaptured. You can visit the Dungeon on the third floor and see what maximum security looked like; or check out the Debtor’s Cell, where those unable to pay their creditors served their time. Visit the outdoor gallows where seven people were hanged through 1905.

Prison Museum the Gallows | Photography by Sue Fajgier

Paranormal Activity

This museum is open year-round. Thursday – Saturdays from 10 -4 and Sundays noon – 4. Admission is $5.00 for adults and reduced for children, seniors and vets. They have an active Board of Directors and host several special events during the year, including a Paranormal Day in conjunction with the NJ Paranormal Group as this place is known to be haunted. Visit their website to watch a video of the haunted prison. The Gift Shop is packed full of unique books, pamphlets and t-shirts. These small press printings are always favorites of students of New Jersey history.

2. Burlington County Lyceum of History and Natural Sciences, Mount Holly

Lyceum Painted Glass Doorway | Photography by Sue Fajgier

This is a nice add-on to a visit to the Prison Museum as it is just up the road on High Street. The Lyceum is a new museum, acquired in 2013 after serving as the town library. Prior to housing the library, this was home to the Langstaff family from 1830 – 1934. This Georgian-style house contains original walls, floors, chandeliers, eight marble fireplaces and some gorgeous examples of painted glass. They have a couple small exhibitions on life in the area along the Rancocas River. The current display on the African American village of Timbuctoo in Southern New Jersey which was inhabited by freed slaves is very enlightening.

Lyceum Exterior | Photography by Sue Fajgier

The second floor is scheduled to open in 2023 with even more exhibits. You can visit the museum Thursdays – Saturdays 10 – 4 and Sundays from noon to 4.  Admission is currently free.

3. ArtYard, Frenchtown

In 2005 Jill Kearney and Stephen McDonnell launched an experimental art exhibit in an unheated former dairy barn. ArtYard is an interdisciplinary alternative contemporary art center now located in Frenchtown, New Jersey. In 2006 ArtYard was born when they unveiled their Trenton Ave. location with an exhibition entitled “The Hatch.”

ArtYard New Front Street Building | Photography by Sue Fajgier

Expanding the Gallery and Our Minds

From 2016 through 2020, they continually presented films, exhibits and interactive productions from this space. In January of 2018 we were lucky enough to attend the “Truppe Fledermaus the Carnival at the End of the World Exhibit” by Kahn & Selesnick. Described as,” an immersive, intricate and rich world made from photographs, painting, sculpture, costumes, props, decks of cards, augury, ceremony and general madness.” A catalog of all past and present shows is available on their website.

ArtYard End of the World Exhibit 2 | Photography by Sue Fajgier

In 2020 they moved to a larger space at 13 Front Street in Frenchtown. This will enable them to continue to bring” provocative art, performance and creative mischief to a small town at river’s edge”, as is their stated mission. Upcoming events for 2023 include screenings of two “Darwin’s Smile” films narrated by Isabella Rossellini, a documentary of a concert by a vintage French jazz band and three exhibitions offering different approaches to finding beauty and engaging in creativity around unauthorized objects hiding in plain sight.

ArtYard is open all year from Wednesday – Sunday. Admission is a $5 requested donation. Take the kids to ArtYard. They truly make art accessible to everyone.

4. Studio 29, Frenchtown

I’m including this now as an add-on to your visit to ArtYard even though the finishing touches are not yet done. When completed, the old location of ArtYard on Trenton Avenue is about to transform into Studio 29. This will be a progressive studio for artists with developmental and intellectual disabilities.

They currently offer a monthly film series, “Films for Friends.”  Keep watching the website as artists are starting to sign on and this should go live in 2023.

5. InfoAge Science & History Museum at Camp Evans National Historic Monument, Wall

This is a place for everyone! The word museum is not really applicable here – rather it is a collection of museums assembled on the historic ground that was once the site used by Guglielmo Marconi for perfecting the use of his telegraph connecting the US to Europe. Now, the base formerly known as Camp Evans, is home to a collection of over twelve individual museums which are run and staffed by committed volunteers. There is so much to see here – you may not get through it all in one day.

InfoAge Entrance | Photography by Sue Fajgier

A Short Walk Through History

Begin in the Main Building, the former Marconi Hotel, and visit the self-guided exhibits. These include; a 9/11 Tribute, World War One Technology, A Fallout Shelter, Lenni Lenape Native Americans, The Revolutionary War and African American History. These are small rooms with lots to read. There are a couple of exhibits under construction for Fort Monmouth and the role of Black Americans and Naval Miniatures and Artifacts.

Calling All Radio Enthusiasts

The New Jersey Antique Radio Club runs the Radio Communication and Technology Museum. This exhibit contains the history of communications and has working items on display such as cameras, phones, radios and televisions. You can dial other phone extensions within the room, your kids can experience rotary dialing and also see an actual phone booth. The working Teletype Machine illustrates what communication looked like prior to email. The neat thing here is you can touch the items. If you have any questions at all, the knowledgeable volunteers are here to assist and answer.

InfoAge Radio Museum | Photography by Sue Fajgier

Military Machines

The Military Technology Museum is only open March – December because the building is unheated. It is definitely worth a trip to see over one-half acre of military vehicles, jeeps, motorcycles, tanks, trucks and weapons. These vehicles have been restored and they have a collection here that rivals the Smithsonian containing all three Jeep prototypes originally used by the Army. In this museum, you will see a horse wearing a gas mask and a jeep with a mounted rocket launcher. The collection is so vast, it’s impossible to do it justice in a paragraph.  Future plans include the Girl Scouts adding a Women in the Military exhibit. They also have several temporary buildings designed by Buckminster Fuller available for renovation and I’m excited to see what they do with them in the future.

Computers for Dummies

The Vintage Computer Federation is responsible for the Computer Museum. Here you can watch the technology evolve from the 1940s to the present. You can see analog, mainframe and pc technology on display. They have a rare Univac 1219B that was used by the Navy for their guided missile system. The exhibit is staged so you can follow the development from tubes and transistors, when only institutions and corporations could afford computing, to modern-day personal computers and cell phones.

Hands-On Fun

The best part about this room is the sixty working computers that you can program on and play with; units from 1977 through the Apple II Computer. Do you miss playing Space Invaders on your old Commodore? This is your place. And just like in every other museum, the volunteer docents staffing the museum could not be friendlier or more knowledgeable. If you absolutely love computers – make note of the Vintage Computer Fest scheduled here April 14 -16, 2023.  On another note; all these museums are always looking for donations – money or potential exhibit items. If anyone has any contacts for a piece of ENIAC history, this group would love a call.

InfoAge Computer Museum Space Invaders | Photography by Sue Fajgier

Looking for a Star

Last stop of the day for us was the Space Exploration Center. This is the home of radio astronomy. The 60’ TIROS dish here at InfoAge was used to capture the first weather images of Earth from space in April 1960. It has been restored and is now able to detect signals from the Milky Way. This exhibit is also home to a Vanguard satellite and objects that have been to the moon and back.

InfoAge Illuminates Key Technological Advances

InfoAge Science & History Museums are on the grounds of Camp Evans, now a National Historic Monument. There’s a lot of history just to unpack on this site, worthy of another full article. The current use of this land is nothing short of genius. The InfoAge umbrella has brought together a diverse – yet connected group of volunteers and hobby enthusiasts under one large umbrella. Here the public benefits from a variety of museums staffed by some of the most knowledgeable and passionate people who truly know their stuff and love it. The museum is open on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays from noon – 5:00 all year round. Admission is $12 for adults; $8.00 for kids. This is an amazing place to get your inner geek on and definitely bring the kids. Show them what computing looked like before it was “personal.”

6. Wheaton Arts and Cultural Center, Millville

Although it is not open all year, the Museum of American Glass located on the grounds of the 45-acre Wheaton Arts Center in Millville, New Jersey, is so spectacular that no list of state treasures would be complete without it. Initially opened in 1973, this museum contains the largest collection of American Glass in the world. They are able to display about 6,500 of their over 20,000-piece collection in this 18,000-square-foot museum.

Museum of American Glass Exterior | Photography by Sue Fajgier

Glass Houses

The first glass-making factory in New Jersey was opened in 1739, the Wistarburgh Glass Factory of Alloway. Wistar defied English rule by making glass in the colonies when this was prohibited. The sandy soil of South Jersey, so rich in silica, was ideal for the glass-making process. During its heyday, this area was a center for glass making after the split with England. The Wheaton Glass Company began making bottles in 1965. The Wheaton/Nuline Company manufactured reproductions of old American glass bottles and commemorative decanters until 1975.

World-Class Glass

There’s a lot of beautiful glass to see in this museum. There is “The World’s Largest Glass Bottle” which was blown in Millville in 1992 and stands 7 feet 8 inches tall. There’s a magnificent paperweight collection. The building is designed to allow you to wander through a chronological history of glass-making and the history of the glass making industry. It’s a wonderful trip.

Museum of American Glass Glass Blowing | Photography by Sue Fajgier

This museum is open April through December. Admission is $12.00 for an adult to the Wheaton Arts Center. Your admission fee includes not only the Glass Museum, but access to watch live glass-blowing exhibits, pottery making exhibits, a nature trail and the ability to interact with the artists and craftsmen and women who inhabit the Arts Center. This really is a full-day experience and well worth the cost to see such treasures right in our own backyard.

From Bars to Stars and Beyond

New Jersey is a history-rich state. We also are home to several National Historical sites. If you are a student of life – or of history- there is an abundance of museums in our state available for anyone to learn more about an old hobby or to discover a new passion. Winter is an excellent time to get out there and explore. You won’t be disappointed if you visit our above list, or check out the state website for further ideas.

About the Author/s

Sue graduated from Rutgers University with a B.A. in English back when you could still get a degree for reading great literature. She spent nearly 40 years working in the Sales & Marketing field with companies ranging from non-profits to small businesses to Fortune 100 Corporations. Most recently retired after nearly 20 years with S & P Global, she is now free to pursue her true passions for hiking, writing and photography. Sue was born and raised in New York State. As a New Jersey transplant, her passion for the special blend of culture and nature that is uniquely Jersey is what Sue loves to share with the world. She has one grown son that she is insanely proud of. Her husband of many decades is an amazing partner both in life and hiking. When not out exploring, Sue is most likely at home reading a novel with her dog.

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