Spring 2023 | Director’s Letter: The Museum between Preservation and Action

I taught my first course a long time ago—an eight a.m. French language and literature course in an un-air-conditioned summer classroom in Cabell Hall at the University of Virginia. Then I was not so many years (or even months, really) past the age of my students, which gave me a strong sense of how much we were in it together—“it” being the process of learning and making our way through the rush of a term. Over the years since, as I’ve made a career in academically based museums, teaching has been a substantial part of what has grounded me in such museums. My first courses at the University of California, Berkeley, were supported by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation that sought to bring university museums more deeply into the academic mix of their parent institutions. Even as I was learning so much about how to curate—from the challenge of space-based interrogations of objects in brutalist galleries to the opportunity of the thematic exhibition (then still a somewhat suspect enterprise)—my students were engaged with me on a journey of considering how the museum ought to matter. Whether as a tool in their own educational experience, a vehicle for scholarship, or a resource for surrounding communities, the museum was, as we examined it together, a paradigm for the academy itself, a locus of interrogation.

With the dawn of a new semester at Princeton, I’m entering the classroom again—this time to lead the second iteration of a course titled “The Museum between Preservation and Action.” I first offered this course for upper-level undergraduates a few years ago, with a wonderfully lively and engaged group of students. We swept our way from the history and development of museums to considerations of their moral and ethical dimensions and responsibilities, to a series of case studies of exhibitions positing that museums might be sites of engagement with the most important issues of the time, thus even sites of “activism.” To the concern of some of my colleagues while we’re pushing a very large boulder up a hill in making a new Museum, I wanted to teach a version of the course again—and to do it in this moment.

Apart from being a glutton for self-imposed punishment, several factors compelled me. First, even though only a few years have passed since I first developed the course, the world around us has changed with remarkable speed, including the world of museums and what we ask of them. With the pandemic, the murder of George Floyd, and the continuing impact of social justice movements from Me Too to Black Lives Matter, new voices have emerged demanding that institutions be more accountable to, and shaped by, the communities and citizens they serve. Demands for the “dismantling” of the museum—both literally and more frequently metaphorically—accelerated beginning in 2020. Not only has the discourse surrounding the museum changed but so too has the literature in the field. Second, at what better moment could I imagine interrogating the museum as a public institution with a group of students than while we are in the process of making a wholly new Museum facility? The questions posed by the course have very local, real-world implications.

Third, and perhaps most important, I wanted to work with students again because doing so has always made me a better museum curator and, later, director. The simple fact of facing a group of bright young people disinclined to let you off the hook about much of anything demands both deep preparation (a knowledge of today’s literature, not just yesterday’s) and the readiness to accept having one’s sacred cows challenged. The students I have taught have rarely been inclined to accept any hegemonic answer to the question of who owns the past. Conclusions that may seem obvious to them may not seem so to me, and vice versa. Shaped as I initially was by a new emphasis in museums on equity in the 1990s, conjoined to continuing ideas of excellence, the critical attention of my students forces me to ask which of those outlooks and tools remain valuable and which have passed their sell-by date. Whether my students are art historians, public policy students, engineers, or computer scientists, they are a microcosm of the University around us; our time together can be understood as a kind of immersive twelve-week focus group, an opportunity to be in the trenches in a way that no other form of engagement with students can afford.

There are loud and powerful voices today challenging the legitimacy and value of what happens in higher-education classrooms. Far from suggesting that the world of higher education is out of touch with the needs of today’s society or stifling to the diversity of viewpoints, my time in the classroom has always shown me—in real terms—that scholarship and accessibility, excellence and equity, conjoin in potent ways. I’ve got a lot of reading and rereading ahead of me this semester, but I’m excited to see what unexpected ideas bubble up in the weeks ahead—and eager to experience again the rich and sometimes uncomfortable stew of being in the classroom.

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