Art Matters by Izzy Kasdin, Class of 2014, Executive Director, Historical Society of Princeton
As an undergraduate at Princeton, I served as an Orange Key Tour Guide. For three-and-a-half years, every Friday afternoon, I’d lead a group of prospective students and their parents around campus, sharing tall tales about carvings on copper gutters as I ticked off departments, student groups, and athletic opportunities. Along the way, I would try to make something about Princeton stand out from the dizzying amount of information these high schoolers were accumulating on their college visits.
The first stop on my tour was always the Art Museum. If my tour had an overarching theme (and, of course, I felt like it should), the Art Museum was its anchor. The Museum represented to me access and autonomy; the University gave even the freshest of undergraduate students the opportunity to use the same resources as the most senior faculty members.
Indeed, the Art Museum was the first museum where I, an aspiring museum professional, was given permission to take ownership of the collection and make my own meaning in the space. As a student in archaeology, art history, and public history courses, I frequently ventured into the Museum with classmates to visit behind-the-scenes Museum holdings, handle and make observations about collections items, or engage with curators to explore the choices they made in assembling an exhibition. These experiences culminated in the design of a hypothetical Art Museum exhibition about collectors of the art of the American West. For the first time ever, I wrote label text, selected and arranged objects for display, and crafted a narrative for an exhibition.
During these classroom experiences, I started to identify my own personal approach to museum work and to hone my curatorial voice. I discovered that storytelling is what I enjoy most. Museums, to me, have always been places that, in multiple media, tell stories. Exhibitions capture a visitor at the start and progress from object to object, artwork to artwork, scene to scene in an embodied narrative arc that pulls visitors through an exciting, illustrated story to a satisfying (or, sometimes, unsatisfying) denouement. The physical experience of moving through an exhibition space naturally builds drama.
More importantly, storytelling helps to create relevance. As Leslie Bedford wrote in her own defense of storytelling in museums, “Stories open up a space into which the listener’s own thoughts, feelings, and memories can flow and expand. They inspire an internal dialogue and thus ensure a real connection.”
To be sure, what distinguishes the educational function of museums from other educational venues is this emphasis on and unique ability to forge connection. At the most fundamental level, museums stand as one of the few educational spaces where human beings connect with real, physical things, which create salient visual and sensory learning experiences. But museums, when operating at their best, also open the door for visitors to connect ideas—linking another culture, time, or place to their own personal experiences. The visitors develop their own unique relevancies that add endless layers of meaning to the objects on view.
Often, these connections and reinterpretations never leave the confines of visitors’ private musings or whispered conversations with their museum buddy. Recently, however, in an inspiring fashion, the Museum formally invited those added layers of meaning into their exhibition spaces. As part of the Princeton Migrations Project earlier this year—a collaborative, community-wide investigation of the theme of migration spearheaded by the Art Museum—several label interventions were installed throughout the Museum's collections galleries. Members of the University community, none art historians by training, wrote their own interpretations of iconic works of art, reflecting upon how those works connected with their own experiences or understandings of migration.
These new labels, hung adjacent to the curators’ “official” take, signaled the limitless meanings that can be drawn from a particular work. Perhaps most powerfully, these labels were signed, attributing an identity to the particular point of view that is inherently present in any museum label.
The Art Museum has been my steady companion as I moved from museum consumer to student to creator. I have embodied all of these roles within the Museum’s walls at one time or another during my two decades in Princeton. As I reflect on the roles I have played in the Museum, it becomes clear that the most indelible experiences I’ve had there—or in any museum space, for that matter—occurred when I wore all of those hats at once.
All visitors to museums can experiment with being at once consumers, critics, and creators of museum content, even if just in their private musings. How lucky are we that museums give everyone the access and autonomy to contemplate the physical reminders of the human experience? Let’s all use that privilege to collectively build upon the meanings inside.
Izzy Kasdin, Class of 2014
Executive Director, Historical Society of Princeton