The Responsibility for Stewarding Collections | Director's Letter Spring 2019

From their beginnings, the art collections at Princeton have been international and cross-disciplinary. Understood as a way of bringing the world to Princeton students, from a time when what was then the College of New Jersey existed at a colonial crossroads, the collections have spanned continents from the first. Early photographs of the collections installed in Nassau Hall in the nineteenth century show us objects from the ancient Mediterranean world, European and American paintings, a cast collection from ancient originals, and dinosaur bones—among other things. I often speak of this origin story when I tour visitors through the Museum as a way of making two points: that we are the beneficiaries of an institution that began collecting long ago, and did so ever more expansively with the passage of time, and that the goal of bringing the world to our students remains vital today.

What I sometimes colloquially refer to as our “under-one-roofness” is no accident. Those who came before us were both intentional and opportunistic in expanding their art historical reach to include commitments to peoples from around the world, including in Asia, Latin and South America, and Africa. Because this phenomenon is so familiar to us who work with the collections, I think we tend to regard such an outcome as somehow normal in the world of higher education. But in reality, there are only a handful of university and college museums that can make claims to the combination of breadth and depth to be found here. And such range and quality are what enable us to serve the University’s teaching mission from art history to anthropology to biochemistry to environmental studies. In the last academic year, students and instructors from some fifty-one academic departments and programs came to our study rooms to use works from the collections not on public display as part of their classwork. I feel certain that those who began shaping our collections in the eighteenth century would feel vindicated in their convictions.

I invoke this history briefly to consider for a moment the special responsibilities—and opportunities—that such collections bestow. Even as we question whether it is possible (or desirable) to be a “universal museum,” and what doing so would mean in a postcolonial age, the work of caring for, presenting, and interpreting collections that span the globe demands certain things of us as custodians—and opens doors unimaginable in most younger collections. But for me, this reality also raises questions of how we ought to work with these collections in order to shape their greatest impact. We are exceptionally well placed to tell global narratives of artistic and cultural exchange and of cross-cultural influences, and to examine how certain themes and impulses arise in cultures that had little or no contact. But we remain substantially shaped by disciplinary and cultural boundaries of the past, boundaries that inform our curatorial structure and expertise.

We have certainly begun to explore the opportunities such diverse collections awaken, from installing a second-century Roman torso alongside two Renaissance paintings of Saint Sebastian to make explicit the ways in which ancient art shaped a renewed interest in humanism to inserting a twenty-first century photograph in a gallery of European history painting to encourage us to look freshly at works from the past. But there is so much more that can be done here to reflect the ways in which our students (and the wider public) learn today.

These thoughts are specifically provoked by our spring exhibitions and collections installations. As you will read in these pages, we are pairing two exhibitions that bridge past and present in considering how Western artists have depicted family and childhood, from the iconic British artist Thomas Gainsborough to painters and photographers from the nineteenth century to the present. We are also opening a quietly stunning exhibition of Mexican retablos, votive offerings by self-taught artists that express suffering and salvation, faith and family, especially in relation to the phenomenon of border crossings. The retablo as an art form has roots in Spanish colonization and thus in itself combines cultures, geographies, and time periods—in ways more topical than we could have imagined when we first began work on this project.

The responsibility for stewarding collections of such diversity demands that we explore both new and traditional ways of using these collections and of considering the wider visual world beyond. These strategies are at work in numerous freshly reinstalled galleries that bring into contact beloved favorites from the collections with new acquisitions, hidden gems, and very special loans. But there is still more to be done to draw out the richness of our holdings and awaken a fuller appreciation of the complexities of the past. These are issues very much in our minds as we design new galleries that will shape the possibilities for future curators and educators. Even as we are guided by the past, we are driven to contemplate how the Museum’s architecture itself will one day enable deeper, more interwoven and innovative ways of educating from our collections—our most precious resource.

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