Spring 2021 | Director's Letter: Museum without Walls

The Museum recently announced that it has moved from the COVID-19–driven closure of our galleries to the closure of our galleries necessitated by the imminent start of construction on the Museum’s new home, designed by Sir David Adjaye. The character of this project is such that its near-term impact is immensely disruptive, requiring the safe removal of the entirety of the objects on-site—some 53,000 of the more than 112,000 works of art in the Museum's collections. How do you remove a Spanish staircase fabricated in 1549 or monumentally scaled Roman mosaics that are more than two thousand years old? The short answer is very carefully, and with the help of teams of experts (and sometimes a lot of heavy equipment). Even though our galleries have thus sadly been invisible to (and unvisitable by) our visitors for a year now, the work taking place within them is momentous. On any given day, some sixty staff members, contractors, and consultants are on-site, working safely in pods to evacuate the galleries.

I have long described the ideal art museum in an academic setting as a kind of town square in which communities of all kinds can gather to investigate the human condition. I particularly like the New England model of a town square as a space in and around which democracy itself is forged and deployed, the venue for core civic functions. In this way, the museum can be the embodiment of the ideals of the university campus, itself a space that brings together disparate buildings, disciplines, and individuals in a community of learning—what Jefferson famously termed his “academical village.” Naturally I love the fact that the word campus derives from the Latin for field and that it was first used at Princeton to describe the field that separated the grounds of the nascent college from the small nearby town. From a meaning that was once used to signal separation—and that reinforced the medieval European model of a cloistered environment—has grown a sense of interconnectedness.

To connect these two thoughts, how then does the model of the art museum as a kind of town square, or of a campus in micro, survive during a period of great physical and spatial disruption—whether caused first by COVID-19 or now by imminent construction? My answer begins by reminding us of the ways in which we seek to position the Museum not in isolation but as part of a system, a network, a community of which we are citizens. We operate collaboratively with our partners, such as the University Library, the Arts Council of Princeton, and the Princeton Public Schools to help assure that the community’s needs—variously defined—can be met. We, then, are able to turn to these partners during a time of disruption to think freshly about how teaching from our collections can be sustained and how our gallery impact can continue. Just as we have sought to be a resource to local businesses or municipal government, we can call on these friends to consider how the necessity of reinvention in the face of pandemic or construction can be a catalyst to creative thinking and collaborative action.

Doing this asks us to think expansively about the meaning and idea of the word campus. Princeton University’s own campus can be a resource in this time of disruption—providing venues for educational programs or social gathering, once it is again safe to do so. I hope it can also be a venue of a less traditional kind as we explore ways in which the extraordinary natural and built beauty of this place might provide the vessel for outdoor work and experimentation. But we might also usefully think of our region as a campus-like ecosystem that extends to Trenton and Montgomery and West Windsor and beyond. How might we partner differently in less geographically bounded settings, or deliver outcomes useful to our communities differently by reconsidering space, place, and belonging? What will it mean to take our long-standing collaboration with the Trenton Public Schools back to Trenton, where we might listen to community members in new ways? Some of our answers to these questions are still in gestation, but what an adventure this promises to be. I am confident that the Museum’s town square, provoked by necessity, is both fluid and flexible enough to allow for some happy surprises as we become for a time a museum without walls.

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