Summer 2021 | Director's Letter: The Art Museum as a humanistic laboratory

In 1962 a much smaller staff of what is now the Princeton University Art Museum began to pack up the collections in order to make way for demolition of the existing Museum, constructed in the 1880s. By the summer of 1963, Museum offices had moved to Aaron Burr Hall; Marquand Library had moved to Firestone Library; and many objects from the Museum’s collections had gone out on long-term loan to the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Allen at Oberlin, and other institutions. Bids were accepted and construction began on a partial replacement facility that had been championed by Rensselaer Lee, Class of 1920 and later chair of the Department of Art and Archaeology, as a “humanistic laboratory” akin to Firestone and Marquand Libraries—a facility that he hoped would include “live” storage (as opposed to “dead” storage) and changing exhibitions that would “constantly invite the attention of students on their way to and from classes.” The resulting building opened in October 1966, some forty-one years after the idea for it had first been mooted, at a cost of about $4 million (only half of which was spent on the Museum itself). It was so large that students dubbed it the “massif central” for the way it forced anyone making one’s way across campus to move around it.

Lee was not the first to invoke the idea of the Art Museum at Princeton as a humanistic laboratory. President James McCosh used similar language in 1882 as he planned the University’s first purpose-built museum, one that supplanted the longtime use of space in Nassau Hall’s former prayer room for the display of the collections. It is language that I have unknowingly invoked over the years myself in championing the concept of a museum that would be a laboratory, a testing ground for experimentation in the arts and humanities as important to the life of a great university as its research library. The project on which we are now embarked in partnership with Sir David Adjaye thus finds resonance with ideas that have percolated for some 140 years.

My colleagues who have spent the past six months evacuating art from the “old” Museum would no doubt also find resonance in the act of packing up the collections, even if the collections today are vastly larger than they were in 1962. From our holdings of over 112,000 works of art, more than 65,000 had to be evacuated from the old facility to be taken to safety: I suspect that the hands of trained art handlers have likely touched just about every work in the collections in what might be termed the great shuttle.

The project of the 1960s was by no means the first instance of building and rebuilding in the Museum’s history, but it shared at least one characteristic with building projects from the 1880s to the 1920s and 1930s: Just about the day after the building was opened, it was deemed inadequate to the growing demands of burgeoning collections and increased teaching. This is a pattern that I hope ends with the current project. Unlike the previous undertakings, this is a whole-cloth rebuilding and reinvention, scaled to meet the Museum’s core needs for display, study, conservation, and teaching for years to come. And while it may share characteristics of the “massif central”—notably a large physical footprint and the creation of a shared home for museum, library, and academic department—its permeability will invite entry (even if only to pass through) from all sides. No need to skirt a wide perimeter.

The last work of art left our longtime home in McCormick Hall in late May. Staff paused in their work long enough to photograph the final crate being loaded onto a truck to be whisked away to secure storage. That landmark moment came only a few days behind schedule, which is something of a miracle given that evacuating the collections took place entirely under COVID-19 circumstances. For that reason, also, the moment when the building was completely emptied was seen by few, and so we have had to find other ways to say goodbye to the facility that served as the Museum’s home for fifty-five years. Construction fencing has gone up, site work has begun, and environmental mitigation and then demolition will begin in earnest late this summer. It is a time that is both bittersweet and a harbinger of wonderful things to come.

And yet only the galleries are gone. The Museum itself remains open for business, albeit under dispersed circumstances. As you will read in these pages, digital programming continues apace; we look forward to the second online Nassau Street Sampler; teaching will be taking place off-site, from Trenton to Firestone Library; we are preparing to reopen Art@Bainbridge with a marvelous new single-artist installation of works by Adama Delphine Fawundu; and we are exploring the possibility of additional exhibition opportunities on and off campus during the years of construction. You’ll find all the news in the pages of this magazine, which will continue to be published quarterly, as well as on our website and social media channels; I count on you to join us as the journey continues.

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