Art of the Ancient Americas

Spanning 5,000 years and covering a vast geography from Alaska to Chile, the Museum’s renowned collection of the art of the ancient Americas illuminates the extraordinary richness of the indigenous art of the western hemisphere. The refurbishment of the galleries housing these works continues a multiyear project of gallery renewal and reinstallation, including the renovation and opening to the public of the Works on Paper Study Room.

Works from the Classic cultures of Mesoamerica. Photo: Bruce M. White

Princeton’s engagement with the indigenous art of the Americas began in the mid-nineteenth century, when occasional donations of artifacts were made to the University. Beginning in the 1870s, additional objects were donated to the Theological Seminary by Reverend Sheldon Jackson, a missionary who collected materials in southwestern Alaska and in the American Southwest. With the opening of the E. M. Museum of Geology and Archaeology in 1874, in what is today the Faculty Room of Nassau Hall, these materials migrated to that museum and became part of Princeton’s Department of Geology and Geophysical Sciences collections. These were subsequently displayed in Guyot Hall from 1909 until its space was refurbished in 2000, when many of those holdings migrated once again to the Art Museum.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, indigenous American art, like the arts of Africa and Oceania, largely fell outside of the scope of the Art Museum’s specifically “historic” collecting. Nonetheless, donations of ceramic and stone works, along with several auction purchases from the William Randolph Hearst estate, composed a modest sampling of Mexican and Peruvian material. To this, J. Lionberger Davis, Class of 1900, began adding select donations, including, in 1965, a stellar Maya figurine of an aged goddess from Jaina Island. Still, at the mid-1960s, the Art Museum held very few works of Pre-Columbian art of the highest quality.

View of the newly refurbished galleries, including works from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Photo: Bruce M. White

In 1967, ancient American art enjoyed a tremendous influx in presence and attention with the appointment of Gillett G. Griffin as faculty curator. Much of the extant collection is due to Griffin’s extraordinary efforts to promote ancient Americans as among the world’s great artists, a position he espoused through both the display of his own collections at the Art Museum and his impassioned teaching. His infectious enthusiasm for the ancient Americas also inspired numerous collectors to make major donations. The Art Museum’s ancient Americas collections exhibit special strength in the art of ancient Mesoamerica, with particularly strong holdings in Maya pottery and figurines, Formative period art (Olmec, Tlatilco, Xochipala), and material associated with Teotihuacan. Although other regions enjoy less depth and coverage, a number of important works of other cultures and periods are also among the Museum’s holdings.

Late Classic Maya, Jaina Island or vicinity, Campeche, Mexico, Chak Chel (Great Rainbow), a.d. 600–800. Ceramic with traces of Maya blue pigment, h. 26.0 cm., w. 13 cm., d. 13.6 cm. Gift of J. Lionberger Davis, Class of 1900. Photo: Bruce M. White

Since the last holistic reconsideration of the ancient Americas galleries twenty-five years ago, the collections have grown substantially. Additional freestanding cases were installed to accommodate new works, while the existing wall cases also accepted more objects, leading to a relatively small gallery space (of about 1700 square feet) displaying more than eight hundred objects. While such a concentrated and rich display of art has been lauded by students and experts with deep knowledge of the art of the ancient Americas, other visitors found the galleries difficult to penetrate; great works might be overlooked amidst the dense array, and virtually no space remained for accompanying descriptions and explanations. The sheer quantity of objects on display also prohibited object-specific lighting. Visitors thus had little means of learning about the art on view, and lighting could not effectively highlight the objects of greatest aesthetic or academic import.

Over the past year, a team of Museum staff, with the input of docents, faculty, curators from other museums, and a suite of architectural, design, and lighting consultants, has sought to refashion the gallery experience, guided by several fundamental goals. These included making the space more inviting and comfortable for visitors; highlighting the most important and visually striking works, so that no visitor would be likely to overlook them during a casual visit; establishing a greater representational balance across the western hemisphere’s rich cultures and artistic traditions; and providing a complementary prose narrative that would catalyze deeper understanding and engagement between our visitors and the art. Furthermore, we hoped to achieve these goals with modest financial investment and, by necessity, within the physical parameters established by the existing architecture.

View of the ancient Americas galleries. Photo: Bruce M. White right: Early Classic Maya works of art. Photo: Bruce M. White

In addition to fresh paint, carpet, and in-case fabrics, the gallery refurbishment includes a reorganization of the space, generally arranged by geography. Upon entering the galleries from those of the ancient Mediterranean, visitors are greeted with feature objects in freestanding cases, which are positioned adjacent to wall cases that present other art from the same geographic region. On one side, displays begin in the far north, with selections of art from the Alaskan Arctic. The other side begins in the south, with selections of art from lower South America, including ancient arts from the Amazon basin and the Chilean Andes. Moving into the gallery, the organization continues along each side, culminating at the center of the Americas in the rear gallery, where Princeton’s exceptional holdings of art from ancient Mesoamerica reside.

Early Classic Maya Works of art. Photo: Bruce M. White

Throughout, only select artworks from each culture and period are presented. The nearly 75 percent reduction in the number of objects on display offers significantly more space for didactic accompaniment—in fact, every object is addressed to some degree by a descriptive label—and results in a dramatically different aesthetic experience from what existed previously. Thanks to the complete replacement of the gallery lighting system with new LED lighting, each object is illuminated to highlight its visual qualities.

The new design was developed with the future always in mind. We are keen to regularly provide new encounters in the space through periodic rotation of works in the collection, select loans, and new acquisitions. For the initial installation, numerous objects from private collections and two regional museums—the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and the Philadelphia Museum of Art—join Princeton’s holdings.

The works selected for loan are meant to complement the Museum’s own collections with objects otherwise underrepresented. From the University of Pennsylvania, for example, we have borrowed a selection of ancient Amazonian ceramics as well as a very fine cast gold figural vessel of the Quimbaya culture of ancient Colombia. The Philadelphia Museum of Art has graciously lent three monumental works, two from Teotihuacan and the other of imperial Aztec manufacture, which offer a scale of object similarly underrepresented in Princeton’s collections.

We intend for this to be a dynamic and engaging space, one in which the public and students alike can learn, explore, and enjoy. While a great deal of thought went into the initial refurbishment, we see it as a work in progress and welcome the thoughts and reactions of patrons like you. Please visit the new ancient Americas galleries and let us know what you think!

Bryan R. Just
Peter Jay Sharp, Class of 1952, Curator and Lecturer in the Art of the Ancient Americas