Summer 2020 | Director's Letter: Shaping a New Facility for the Princeton University Art Museum

As regular readers of this page will know, there are many problems we have set out to remedy in shaping a new facility for the Princeton University Art Museum, including the need for expanded galleries in which to display changing selections from our collections; space in which to mount temporary exhibitions suitable to the ambitions we have for them; dedicated educational spaces appropriate to disparate uses, from lectures to art making; and visitor amenities that will foster lingering and close looking. Among the riddles that have long plagued us in the current facility are problems of a different kind—an essentially inward-looking building that does not convey welcome or invite participation; a complex that is the fruit of five different building efforts resulting in a hodgepodge of vexing accessibility challenges (including no fewer than eighteen different floor plates); and perhaps most problematic, a set of gallery spaces that creates an “upstairs-downstairs” configuration that sends a host of unintended messages about how we value the cultures with which we engage. The volumes of our galleries essentially determine that Europe and North America are the focus of our upper-level galleries, while ancient times and non-Western cultures, which comprise many of our richest collections, are relegated to the lower level, to decreased foot traffic and various wayfinding challenges.

In selecting Sir David Adjaye to shape a new facility for us, we chose an architect who immediately understood the essential importance of overcoming these challenges—in particular the last. One of his team’s earliest concepts—which continues to anchor the design today—was literally to flatten out the sense of hierarchy among the collections in our care by placing the vast majority of the collections galleries on a single level. This affords significant opportunities not only to invite discovery of the full range of our holdings but also to explore points of contact, of cultural exchange, of thematic investigation—and in doing so, to present new ways of engaging with what it means to hold globe-spanning collections. Back when we were first considering the program for the building and understanding what our needs would be for the coming decades, I would never have thought it possible to overcome seeming hierarchies in this way—but now I cannot imagine a design solution more appropriate to our times.

Another key objective for the project is transparency—both literal and metaphoric. Just as I have sought to be more transparent in our work—publishing annual reports, sharing budgets, openly acknowledging the issues and complexities of cultural property ownership—now we are making a building on themes of transparency. In the more literal mode, this means a building of many portals, inviting entry from all sides, and glass “lenses” that afford views into the Museum for passersby as well as views out onto the beautiful Princeton campus. These features will anchor the Museum in time and place in our University’s built and natural environment, invite participation, and—we hope—convey something of the dynamic life of the institution, the dynamism of great art. More metaphorically, these moments of transparency are intended to convey a sense of invitation and welcome to all our students and to bridge academy and community, scholarship and accessibility.

We also presented Sir David and our design team at Adjaye Associates and Cooper Robertson with the goal of positioning the new Museum as a hub of campus and community life, what I have sometimes referred to as a “new town square.” The team is achieving this through an array of design solutions, including two pedestrian thoroughfares within the Museum that we have called “art walks.” These indoor pathways invite many different uses and experiences of the building while always provoking encounters with works of art. In addition, the design gives us a building that can be operated in zones, so that public spaces, the educational center, and visitor amenities can be operated for longer hours than galleries and other areas with special security requirements.

As the custodians of some of the widest-ranging collections housed on a university campus, we have a special set of responsibilities. Today we continue to grapple with the realities of our own history in institutional collecting and the enduring question of who should “own” the past, with ways in which to build on historical pedagogies and shape experiences suited to the twenty-first century and, ultimately, with how to honor and retain the public trust. Much more will be said and explored regarding these issues. But thanks to the extraordinary investment of Princeton University and of so many generous benefactors, we have the opportunity to shape a building that fosters new modes of investigation; that honors and fosters the values of diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice; and that affords new moments of aspiration and inspiration. Sir David was, I think, exactly the architect we needed for these times, and we are excited to share the designs with you later this year.

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