Fall 2020 | Director's Letter: How do we translate our values into action?

As you will read later in this issue, we have reached an important point in the years-long process of shaping a new Museum facility here at Princeton. With design development nearly complete, project architect Sir David Adjaye and I recently shared the designs for the building in a public program on September 23. Whether you joined us live or have had the chance to access the recording of that program on our website, you will have seen how we are making architectural choices that reflect our values and priorities—including commitments to equity, accessibility, and transparency—and our belief that architecture has the power to shape our experience as humans and ultimately provide hope and solace.

This project is a source of hope and solace for me personally, as I hope it is for many. During these challenging months of physical isolation, of uncertainty, of evident fraying of the social fabric, I feel enormously fortunate in having a project that looks beyond COVID times and is built on the conviction that our work can make a difference, that positive change is possible. Princeton’s decision to go forward with this project now, when it might be easier to hold back, is both a reflection of the University’s commitments, including the importance it places on the arts and humanities, and an investment in the future at a time when the concrete evidence of such investment is crucial.

Working with David Adjaye has itself been a source of inspiration. If you are fortunate enough to know him or to have heard him speak, or if you know him only through his built achievements to date, then you are aware that David is both a remarkable talent and a remarkable human being. David lives his values—whether in translating into architectural form his belief in the power of art to transcend narrow beliefs and experiences, or acting as a mentor to the field. I know of no architect who believes more deeply in the importance of diversifying the field of architecture, or who acts more strongly on that conviction. Beyond this, there is something of the spiritual both in David and in his work as a designer—a sense of the transcendental power of great design that comes from both the intellect and the heart.

Working with David at this particular moment in history, when our attention is again drawn powerfully to questions of equity and justice, is a lesson and a provocation in how to live our values. This is a question I consider often, especially in the strange social detachment of Zoom and of remote work and instruction:

How do we translate our values into action? How do we act intentionally and strategically in the face of quotidian stresses and fears?

Making a new Museum with David and his team and with all my colleagues at Princeton at this moment in history is a source of uplift, but also a responsibility that must be seized. We have not just the opportunity but the necessity of asking and answering questions about what a globe-spanning museum ought to be in the twenty-first century, in an age in which the work of anti-racism has never been more important, in a time in which the immediacy of climate change assaults us as never before. While glimpses of how we seek to answer these questions—through architecture and design, through curatorial choices, through changes to our professional practices—are now becoming visible, the full story will unfold only over the next several years.

In the short term, there are undeniable sadnesses. It has been devastating to lose daily face-to-face contact with our students and other visitors, and indeed with our collections. The  realization that we could not safely reopen our galleries this fall, including our beautiful exhibitions that we had kept safely in the dark awaiting your return, has been wrenching. But in that pain comes the evidence of things that matter—of the critical nature of human dialogue with objects of wonder, delight, and disturbance; of how deeply we can be fed by those objects and by one another. Even while working in these fractured ways, there are moments when distractions fall away and it is possible to see what a great museum can and must be. These glimpses guide us as we shape not only a dynamic new building but more immediately the new and more varied digital programs we are rolling out this fall, as we forge opportunities in the digital realm that can be more interactive and dynamic, and as we strive not only to sustain the quality of our teaching but also to make it thrive in the face of necessary reinvention. You—our audiences, our communities—have never been more important than in this moment.

James Christen Steward
Nancy A. Nasher–David J. Haemisegger, Class of 1976, Director