Art Matters by Andrew Brazer, Class of 2019
There is an oft-quoted saying that “stories have the power to take you places”— to worlds unseen and ages long past. This is particularly true in a museum, where objects tell tales of culture and creation. As an Art Museum student tour guide, I endeavor to use stories to inspire artistic appreciation in the hearts and minds of museumgoers.
In the fall of their freshman or sophomore years, Princeton undergraduates can apply to become tour guides for the Art Museum. After participating in a weeklong training program during winter intersession, students lead tours of eight to ten “highlight” objects in the Museum’s collections. Each student guide offers a unique perspective; while one student might explain the stylistic elements of individual works, another might concentrate on technique, function, or artistic interpretation. I choose to focus on history and myth.
Allow me to illustrate: The ancient art galleries grow quiet as my tour group clusters around a third-century mosaic from Antioch-on-the-Orontes. “All right,” I begin, “Does anybody know who these two figures are?” I point at the tiled images of Herakles and Dionysus. A child of twelve calls out their names—apparently he’s been reading the Percy Jackson series. “And what are they doing?” I ask. “Drinking!” an elderly man exclaims. “That is . . . they’re having a drinking contest.” (He got that last bit from the label.) “Pay close attention to the theatricality of the scene,” I announce. “Do you notice the raised curtain? The stagelike setting? The comic masks? Dionysus was not only the god of wine but also the patron deity of theater.”
Later, we arrive at Charles Willson Peale’s George Washington at the Battle of Princeton (1784). “As many of you know, George Washington crossed the Delaware on Christmas night 1776, leading a surprise attack against the Hessian garrison stationed in Trenton. Soon after that battle, Washington’s troops marched on Princeton, engaging the British regulars on January 3 . . .” A little girl steps forward, holding her father’s hand. “Excuse me, sir,” she says. “Why does it have that funny shape?” She points to the top of the frame and makes a U-shape with her arms. I blink. No one has ever noticed that before. “You have a remarkable eye, young lady.” She beams proudly. “There’s actually a story associated with this frame. Right where you’re pointing there used to be a tiny gilded crown. You see, this frame once housed a portrait of King George II. During the Battle of Princeton, a cannonball ripped through the window of Nassau Hall and decapitated His Royal Highness. After replacing that George with our own [a few people chuckle], we removed the crown to symbolize our independence from the British monarchy.”
As student tour guides, we aim to bring life to the past and inspire appreciation for the arts through the inexhaustible magic of words. Like all museums, Princeton’s is an oasis of stories—a visual library of history and myth. Like all museums, it relies on a dedicated staff (our “librarians,” if you will), who work tirelessly to educate, challenge, and inspire students and members of a diverse public through exposure to the world of art. I am very lucky to have had the opportunity to work alongside members of the Art Museum’s staff, both as a student guide and as a participant in the Museum’s 2018 summer internship program.
As the intellectual property intern in the Collections Information Department, I was responsible for researching and rewriting the Museum’s nonexclusive license agreement and fair use policy. I should mention here that I am a pre-law politics major. As such, this internship afforded me the perfect opportunity to simultaneously pursue my two great passions—law and art. While ownership of a work of art gives the Museum a variety of rights and privileges, it does not transfer copyright, which the artist or the artist's estate retains. By signing a nonexclusive license, the copyright holder grants the Museum permission to reproduce, display, distribute, and otherwise employ images of their work(s) in pursuit of our educational mission. “Fair use” refers to the doctrine in US copyright law whereby copyrighted works of art may be used for certain purposes. This doctrine acknowledges that the use of existing copyright-protected works is sometimes essential to the creation of new works and technologies, as well as to fostering cultural and intellectual exchange.
Toward the end of my internship, I met with representatives from the University’s Office of the General Counsel to present and confirm my revisions to the Museum’s nonexclusive license and fair use policy. These documents will be used by the Museum for years to come. I was thus able to contribute to the Museum’s day-to-day activities in a substantive, meaningful way. Moreover, my experience convinced me to pursue intellectual property law (particularly as it pertains to art), when I matriculate in law school in 2020. I am incredibly grateful for both of my experiences at the Art Museum and to the kind, diligent, lighthearted, and thoughtful members of the staff—the unsung heroes of the Museum, who make our storytelling possible.
Class of 2019