Mahwah Museum features Ramapo throwbacks in new exhibit

Photo by Kim Bongard

Timed for Ramapo’s 50th anniversary, the Mahwah Museum’s latest exhibit shows how the college has evolved since its founding in 1969. Since then, the swimming pool outside the Birch Mansion has been paved over, the library is no longer housed in B-wing and residence halls replaced makeshift campsite dorms.  

The exhibit titled, “A College Comes to Mahwah: Ramapo College: 1965-1975” is set to the time period Ramapo was established in. As iconic Beatles songs blare through speakers, mannequins pose as Ramapo students donning flared jeans and vintage Ramapo apparel. The scene is complete with a lava lamp, a Remington typewriter and a messy pile of vinyl records sprawled on a dorm bed.  

“Writing the history of a college can be extremely boring,” Cathy Hajo, director of the Mahwah Museum, said. “I remember the first meeting saying, “I do not want to sit here and say, ‘and then this school was founded and then this school was founded and then the curriculum changed.’”

With this vision, the museum crafted an exhibit that is both historical and anecdotal, composed of quotes from nearly 100 early alumni and faculty of the college and vintage memorabilia that make up the 1960s and 1970s scene that launches the exhibit. Throughout the museum, there are hundreds of written passages about the college’s early beginnings–including how trustees selected Mahwah as the campus site over 30 other possible destinations. 

Photographs show the original campus consisted only of an L-shaped building that housed academic offices, classrooms, the library and a dining hall. When dorms were not constructed in time in 1972, displaced students made makeshift dorms at Camp Tamarack in Oakland while some faculty housed students in their homes.  

The exhibit also shows how Ramapo was immersed in the political turbulence of the 1960s and 1970s, with one former student’s Vietnam War draft card on display and a photograph of anti-war posters. A video featuring black and white footage documents a student strike that took place on the cement patio outside of A-wing. 

“There’s one scene [in the video] where there’s just dogs running all over the campus…people had their dogs in class, people were smoking in class. It was just a whole different vibe,” Hajo said.

Hajo said the activist strikes that took place on campus occupies a significant section of the museum because alumni members recalled those moments most along with sports teams and games since much of the memorabilia is sports-related like mannequins in uniforms that boast the college’s original colors—gold and red. 

“We’ve had a lot of people in town who didn’t live here back then and they find [the exhibit] interesting. A lot of people still don’t know much about the college,” Hajo said. 

The Mahwah Museum collected the quotes and memorabilia by partnering with Ramapo’s Alumni Association to send surveys out to alumni asking them what memories they had about Ramapo College.  

“A large number of the students who sent it back were transfer students,” said Charles Carreras, a founding faculty member of Ramapo College who was involved with piecing together the exhibit. 

“They had been to other colleges, so they had a frame of reference. So they were so excited that Ramapo was different. They were bored at their other places,” he said. 

Carreras said the year of Ramapo’s 50th anniversary has evoked immense nostalgia among his friends and colleagues who remember teaching at Ramapo when the campus was just one building.  

“We were part of a pioneering effort,” Carreras said. “It was an amazing school because the spirit of being something new and something unique, and this was something unique. There was nothing else in New Jersey like it and very few places in the U.S. like it.”

As part of the Mahwah Museum Lecture Series, a panel made up of Ramapo alumni will discuss their first year as students at the newly opened Ramapo College at Ramapo’s Trustees Pavilion on Nov. 9 at 11 a.m.