Fall 2022 | Director’s Letter: Making and Remaking the Museum

In recent months I’ve made a habit of walking the five minutes from my temporary digs in Green Hall to the four-acre construction site at the heart of the Princeton campus, where a new Art Museum is rising from the ground and taking a new form every week. Especially after a challenging day of complex planning discussions, seeing the day’s developments—cast-in-place walls soaring ever higher, the steel of a future “pavilion“ fully framed out, or the first Glulam beams that will top out many of our future galleries painstakingly hoisted into place—anchors me in the meaning of our work.

That site is thus very familiar to me, readily decipherable in its details after some eight years of planning and four years of design and, now, construction. I recognize what new rebar alleys are shaping or which views will be framed by cuts in a wall. But on almost every visit to the site, I encounter passersby looking for the Art Museum, puzzled that they can’t find it, or a student who is bewildered by the sheer scale of the new construction. As Princeton students begin to arrive on campus for the start of a new academic year, I find myself trying to look at the site through their eyes. It’s a rare thing indeed for an institution of such rich history as Princeton’s to carry out such a dramatic act of remaking at the center of its campus. And the decision to undertake such an act of reinvention practically within the shadow of Nassau Hall was scarcely inevitable.

As I’ve written elsewhere, the history of collecting objects to advance the University’s mission of teaching, research, and public service can be traced almost to Princeton’s founding. The collections that began to emerge in the 1750s and grew dramatically in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have essentially always been located at the campus’s core, including for many years in what is now the Faculty Room in Nassau Hall. When it became clear that dramatic intervention was needed to expand and reshape the Art Museum facility to meet the needs of the twenty-first century, it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that there was room to do so on the site of the existing museum. Indeed, in other higher education settings, such projects are often pushed to the campus edges by the need to find adequate real estate.

The act of making a new museum at the heart of the nation’s fourth-oldest university thus seems to me to be deeply important—a reaffirmation that a museum of objects and ideas can play a profound role in the University’s commitment to a liberal arts education. If the collections that have grown at Princeton since the 1750s now span the globe and more than five thousand years of human history, it is arresting indeed that they should be positioned as a hub for encounter—both for members of this University and for visitors from around the world—just at the edge of Cannon Green and the eighteenth-century core of our campus.

This is not the first act of making, remaking, or expanding an art museum at Princeton; nor is it the first moment of disruption at this location. When the “old“ Museum building, now demolished, opened in 1966, it was dubbed the “massif central“ by a student writing for the Daily Princetonian—a reference to the highland region of southern France and a comment on what seemed to students the dramatic detour made necessary by the newly larger Museum. Such a detour exists again today, as we bypass a construction site situated just between Nassau Hall and the Frist Campus Center and annoyingly blocking egress from the otherwise undisturbed Prospect Gardens.

Unlike the circuitous route created by the 1966 building, however, this detour is to be only temporary. Our new building, designed by Sir David Adjaye, includes four public entry points. A primary “art walk“ from north to south and a secondary one from east to west will allow students and others to move seamlessly through the building, rather than having to skirt its edges—thus continuing rather than disrupting main campus walkways. Such a concept of “all fronts and no backs,“ of multiple entrances, and of both chance and intentional encounters with art was posited by a student member of President Eisgruber’s Advisory Committee on Architecture more than four years ago, before we even began the process of architect selection.

To today’s incoming first-year students wondering what will come of the current not-insignificant disruption or to today’s campus visitor futilely trying to find the old museum, none of this may be immediately obvious. In this phase of our work, in the words of our new collaborator Wendy Evans Joseph, introduced later in these pages, “you have to be resilient, you have to be optimistic, and you have to breathe into it.“ To Princeton students and other visitors, I extend these words of context—along with an invitation to visit the Museum in its various temporary quarters in downtown Princeton—and the heartfelt encouragement to keep an eye on the site and the excitement to come.

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