Remembering Annette Merle-Smith: Docent, Donor, and Friend (1930–2023)

Annette Merle-Smith at the Museum docents’ luncheon in 2017When Annette Merle-Smith’s children were young, she often brought them to the Princeton University Art Museum while she gave tours or prepared lectures. Her daughter, Meg Bergstrand, recalls, “I would spend countless hours there as a kid. [The Museum] really was almost another member of the family.”

Annette, who died in April at age ninety-two, developed an early interest in art that persisted throughout her life. “She and my grandparents would sit down every night before dinner and look at art books together,” Bergstrand shares. “She began to love art and knew it was what she wanted to do with her life.”

While a student at Bennington College, where she majored in art history (her thesis focused on Hieronymus Bosch), Annette worked at several art museums. During one fieldwork term spent employed at the California Legion of Honor, she rented a room in the home of Carolyn and Neal Cassady, close associates of Jack Kerouac. In 1954 she took a job at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), Boston. According to the MFA’s annual report for that year, Annette “inaugurated a new and promising system . . . for the Children’s Room activities” and hosted “a weekly half-hour children’s program” that was broadcast on WGBH-TV Boston. In 1962—the year she “resigned to be married after eight productive years in charge of the Children’s Room”—the museum published her book Dragons as part of its Museum Picture Book Series.

Annette moved to Princeton in 1964 and joined the Museum’s docent program twelve years later, sharing her knowledge of art with generations of visitors. “She took her role seriously and would prepare very impressively for meetings with any group, from young children to adults,” says Karl Kusserow, John Wilmerding Curator of American Art. “She really saw herself and her peer docents as ambassadors for the Museum who could help demystify art and make it more accessible and meaningful to diverse audiences.”

Her early experience leading the Children’s Room at the MFA Boston helped her connect with young audiences in Princeton. “Annette was really excellent with children,” Museum docent Marianne Grey remembers. “She would dress for the tour. She had lovely jewelry, and if she were doing a tour of the ancient art galleries, she would wear a scarab. She was also good at getting the children to talk.”

Annette possessed a keen sense of curiosity and love of learning. “She was a polymath, she was fearless, and she was opinionated in a very authentic way that garnered my respect,” Elizabeth Littlefield, her friend of twenty years, says.

Annette’s philanthropy reflected her extensive interests. Among the many causes she sponsored were young opera singers, archeological digs, and the Merce Cunningham Dance Company—once hosting a dinner in her Princeton home for the groundbreaking troupe of modern dancers.

Her support of the Museum was equally wide-ranging. As James Steward, the Nancy A. Nasher–David J. Haemisegger, Class of 1976, Director, notes, “Annette was endlessly receptive to new ideas. She was really open-minded and utterly excited by Art on Hulfish, of which she was the lead sponsor.” Over the years, Annette supported exhibitions, acquisitions, and the construction of the new Museum. Her generosity made possible the award-winning catalogues for Life Magazine and the Power of Photography and Nature’s Nation: American Art and Environment, as well as many other publications.

“What was wonderful about Annette was that she really cared about the Museum and the projects she supported. She would take the time to go through every essay of the catalogue she funded with a pencil and then invite you over to ask questions,” Kusserow says. “She really cared about scholarship, and I think that’s why her greatest legacy is her abiding support of our publications program.”

At the Museum, Annette’s enduring friendship is deeply missed. “There are holes we never fill,” says Grey, “and Annette is one of them.”

Christine Minerva
Writing and Communications Assistant