Art Matters by Michele Minter, Vice Provost for Institutional Equity and Diversity

Lately I have been thinking about three museum experiences.

The first took place at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC, where I saw a teapot made by Peter Bentzon (ca. 1783–after 1850), a gifted silversmith and free man of color. Bentzon’s teapot, presumably made for a wealthy white connoisseur, epitomizes sophistication and craftsmanship. It is one of the museum’s hundreds of spectacular objects demonstrating Black achievement. (Sir David Adjaye, the museum’s architect, is also designing the Princeton University Art Museum’s new building.)

Photo by Sameer A. Khan / FotobuddyThe second museum experience took place while walking the quiet grounds of the William Trent House, a historic site in Trenton, New Jersey. Built in 1719, the Trent House is maintained by dedicated volunteers and a tiny staff, with exhibitions that illuminate the lives of its residents, both illustrious and little known, including an enslaved man named Yaff. The grounds contain a kitchen garden and orchard like those where Yaff would have worked, a green refuge for Trenton residents amid the parking lots of government office buildings.

A third experience took place at Art@Bainbridge, the Art Museum’s new satellite location across the street from the Princeton campus. I had the chance to see Hugh Hayden’s show Creation Myths, which was sadly cut short by the pandemic. Hayden used the tiny, old rooms of Bainbridge House, built in 1766, to install enigmatic sculptures referencing African American traditions. Most affecting for me was a sinister dining room set studded with thorns, titled America.

Three very different settings and experiences: a silver teapot, a kitchen garden, and contemporary sculpture. As is often the case, it isn’t easy to explain why an experience is evocative. I suspect that the reason all three spoke to me so powerfully was because of their insistence on African American excellence and resilience in the face of injustice from the earliest days of American history. These objects and places insist that even before the United States was a country, Black people were present and Black lives had meaning. For too long, America has dismissed these lives. As the descendent of enslaved people, I deeply value the long-overdue lifting up of these narratives and memories.

However, what I love about museums is that the three experiences I describe are not didactic. Objects and places are resonant and challenging; they don’t tell you what to think but rather invite you to explore and to feel. Art rewards curiosity and open-heartedness. I have had equally meaningful encounters with art from cultures that are not my own—art that puzzled, amazed, or unsettled me.

In my work at Princeton, I have the chance to reflect on how the campus itself is an open-air museum: a site of public history, an architectural showcase, and an outdoor sculpture garden as well as a vibrant educational environment. In recent years, the University has made a commitment to tell fuller and more truthful stories about those who studied, lived, and worked here. New historical markers, portraits, building names, and art commissions have begun to make visible stories and accomplishments that were undervalued, including those of women and people of color. I hope that the Princeton campus will be increasingly a place of unexpected and thought-provoking discoveries.

There is much more work to do in this regard at Princeton, across higher education, and at museums of all types. As Americans consider the ways in which racism has infected our culture over centuries, we must not forget that access to art and public space—which have so much power to stimulate imagination, empathy, and well-being—is not distributed evenly. Visitors to affluent Princeton have easy access to the Art Museum, while Trenton residents are starved for such resources. The William Trent House struggles with deferred maintenance and can afford to stay open only for short hours. We are all called to consider how inequity keeps some of us from the experiences that others of us take for granted.

On the eastern side of East Pyne Hall, across from the University Chapel, is an arch named for James Collins Johnson, a man who escaped slavery and spent his adult life working at Princeton as a food vendor. As campus visitors encounter the plaque that honors Johnson, I hope that they will have an experience that enriches their understanding and raises unsettling questions. As a personal ritual, whenever I walk through Johnson Arch, I take a slight detour so that I can touch the plaque—as an homage to the past and a promise to the future.

Michele Minter
Vice Provost for Institutional Equity and Diversity