The Museum and the Demands of Citizenship | Director's Letter Fall 2016

This year it feels that not a day goes by during which we aren’t provoked to think about the meaning or duties of citizenship, or the ways in which the times we are living in may be giving rise to fundamentally different ways of exercising democratic government. For many, myself included, the musical Hamilton seems apposite in reconsidering (and reminding us about) the dreams, goals, and impossibilities of 1776 and the years that followed. What is needed to make a new (or a strong) nation? What must each of us do? The characters we see on stage may disagree on the politics but they largely agree that what is necessary is individual action; more than one character asks, “Have I done enough?” As the character of Hamilton puts it, “What is a legacy? It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see. . . . America, you great unfinished symphony, you sent for me. You let me make a difference. A place where even orphan immigrants can leave their fingerprints and rise up.”

I have been a museum curator and director for twenty-five years. I continually ask, as a museum, what must we do? What should our fingerprints look like? And for the past decade or so, one of my strongest convictions has been that we must be a vessel for strengthening citizenship. This may sound like a grand ambition for a cultural institution, but there are ways in which museums have long made a difference, planting seeds that we may individually never get to see, provoking new understandings. While this is too large a topic for this page—indeed, I intend this to be the subject of my next book—I’d like to suggest a few ways in which an art museum might help answer the demands of citizenship.

The first of these is that museums and works of art can foster critical thinking and the analytical skills necessary to grapple with complex issues. As the legal scholar Martha Nussbaum notes, “Cultivated capacities for critical thinking and reflection are crucial in keeping democracies alive and wide awake.” The humanities generally and the work of art specifically may have unique abilities to foster these skills, not least by grabbing our attention and demanding that we stop for a moment and engage in what has been termed “slow looking”—a behavior that has surely been under assault in this age of pocket digital devices. Such slow looking might in turn give rise to the ability to see more deeply and accurately. Indeed, doctors and detectives are using today’s museums to be better observers.

The second is that the great universal museums—museums that engage with the whole of the world’s visual traditions—have the capacity to bring together a remarkable range of beliefs and values under a single roof. From ancient Greece to medieval Japan to nineteenth-century Africa to the art of contemporary India and Pakistan, a museum such as this one—of which there are ultimately very few on college campuses—has the ability to simultaneously render the unfamiliar familiar and to remind us of the commonalities of human experience. I still remember, for example, how important Islamic art felt in the days and months after 9/11 as a reminder of the richness of Islamic tradition. The capacities of the universal museum to shape a space in which we can explore our shared humanity and our differences can only be more needed today as we grapple with the realities (and underbelly) of globalism. Ultimately, great works of art can awaken our empathy for people we don’t know and whose values can at least initially seem opposite our own.

A third might be the capacity of art to transcend our present-day worries and remind us of values that stand the test of time. The architecture critic Paul Goldberger, comparing modern-day art museums to the cathedrals of medieval Europe, has described art museums as “community centers as well as places of enlightenment . . . places in which the very idea of immortality seems always to hover above us, as we hopefully experience some degree of transcendence from daily life.” In this light, our galleries might provide moments to reflect upon our highest aspirations, our best selves, or to be offered the solace and joy of beauty.

The galleries of the Princeton University Art Museum are chock-full of great works of art that speak to the three virtues I describe here, whether in temporary exhibitions this fall, such as the globe-spanning A Material Legacy and Epic Tales from India, or in collections galleries ranging from the art of the ancient native Americas to twentieth-century American photography. As it must have done in the early days of the republic, America in 2016 truly feels like an unfinished symphony. It is my hope that our great cultural institutions, and great works of art, can help us find our way and—in speaking to what Hamilton terms “moments that the words don’t reach,” “a grace too powerful to name”—sustain that unfinished business.


James Christen Steward

Nancy A. Nasher–David J. Haemisegger, Class of 1976, Director