Ice cream social brings visitors back to Nutley Museum

NUTLEY, NJ — In a normal year, the Nutley Museum is open to the public twice a year: once for its Ice Cream for History night and once for the fall Pumpkin Festival. It’s also open by appointment and when the Nutley Historical Society holds events there. But for the most part for the last couple of years, the COVID-19 pandemic prevented anyone from strolling through the upstairs gallery full of Nutley memorabilia. That changed when the first event returned: Residents toured the gallery, then were rewarded with ice cream on June 2.

“In a normal year we’re open a couple of times a year, and then on demand,” NHS President Domenick Tibaldo said in an interview with the Nutley Journal at the event, while giving tours of the gallery. “We couldn’t open for two years. I’m a little rusty; I had to look up who some people were.”

There is a rotating stash of artifacts that the NHS stocks in the museum, which range from oil paintings and other artwork to signed photographs from Nutley native Martha Stewart. An original phone booth sits in the back corner of the room, which both Annie Oakley and Mark Twain used. Sports uniforms and game balls from Nutley High School are in glass cases, along with a stained-glass window pane from the Franklin Diner, which closed in the 1970s.

John Simko, the society’s museum director, has spent the last several years searching for art made by Nutley artists. He keeps an eye on auction houses and eBay. The NHS has had several paintings restored that are now hanging on the gallery wall.

“When there’s a good piece and a good price on it, and we all agree that we want it, we buy it,” Simko said in an interview with the Journal at the event. “Some of them are found in the basement; others are donated.”

Not all of the artworks in the museum are pieces the NHS had to buy — some is recent work done by Nutley middle and high school students. Several years ago, Simko noticed the murals painted in sections of John H. Walker Middle School in the 1930s. One section was left blank, so the historical society and the district collaborated to complete the mural with a contest that students could enter. They produced samples and a winner was chosen; the contest entries now hang on the gallery wall.

Mayor Joseph Scarpelli said in an interview with the Journal at the event that reopening the museum to visitors again is a positive thing. Photos of his own family — Scarpelli’s father is a former Nutley Board of Commissioners member and mayor — are in the museum.

“There’s a group of amazing volunteers, and you see the work they do to maintain it and the things they’re able to collect,” Scarpelli said. “Especially for kids, it’s good to see them interested in Nutley history and how we’ve preserved it. There’s a treasure trove of stuff here.”

Barry Lenson’s father was an artist who had a studio in his home in Nutley, and Lenson, who is a member of the NHS and the museum’s art director, donated some of his father’s art when his father died. In the museum, there are also photographs of the studio, out of which several other artists also worked. Lenson said he tries as often as possible to convince people to sell artwork to the museum.

“We’re so lucky to have this facility,” Lenson said in an interview with the Journal at the event. “I think we’re the envy of a lot of historical societies in other towns.”

Ellie Slomkowski, another NHS member, said the historical society is excited to welcome people back to the museum after such a long, involuntary hiatus.

“We’re thrilled people are coming,” she said in an interview with the Journal at the event. “When you see this turnout, and you show them something and they get drawn in, it makes us so happy.”

Photos by Amanda Valentovic