Winter 2023 | Director’s Letter: Fresh Eyes and Minds

As a hiring manager, one often dreams of the moment in the search to fill a key position when the light bulb goes off and one thinks, “Aha! This is the candidate!” In my experience, rival candidates presenting different strengths may be more the norm, but a time when I can vividly recall such clarity of insight came when I met senior project manager Marion Gill, about whom you can read here. Midway through our interview, it was clear to me she was “the one.” Why? A key factor was the matter-of-fact way in which Marion described contending with the immense numbers of moving parts in getting museums such as the National Museum of the American Indian and the National Museum of African American History and Culture ready to open following complex building projects. Both of these are part of our “nation’s attic,” the Smithsonian Institution, and nestle within the federal government. I reckoned—correctly—that if Marion could work productively through that complex system, working at Princeton would pose few challenges to her whiteboards.

In writing this, I’m not only extolling the virtues of a terrific colleague—one of many—but also pondering the ways in which Marion’s experience is enriched by her work within multiple museum contexts. I’ve had the good fortune of spending the whole of my career in the context of art museums, primarily in academic settings. While much separates the museums at Berkeley, Michigan, and Princeton in which I’ve worked, each understands itself as an art museum, which in turn posits certain parameters for thinking about collecting practices, collections stewardship, the norms of preservation and conservation, and the exhibition and interpretation of artworks. Particularly in an age in which so many of the assumptions of museum theory and practice have come to be challenged, it can be enormously fruitful to have at the table someone for whom the art museum answer isn’t self-evident and who is audacious enough to ask why.

Now that we are in the thick of designing the buildout of this Museum’s future galleries and public spaces, and curating inaugural checklists and installations, it is immensely useful to have voices at the table who don’t assume—as we in the world of art museums might—how much can be changed “on the floor,” when we are literally in the midst of the final installation of a gallery. In most history museums, dependent as they often are on deeply contextual, casework-based installations, preserving such flexibility would be a nonstarter. And while I might be loath to commit rigidly to every detail of an installation plan two years in advance, it’s fruitful to be reminded that it may be unrealistic (or expensive) to hold out hope of infinite last-minute adjustments.

Voices such as Marion’s not only act as a corrective to our unquestioned assumptions, absorbed through years of learned behavior, but they also help keep us fresh, too. Hers is far from the only voice working in our Museum to such benefit. Three (soon four) new curators are bringing diverse intellectual approaches and institutional practices garnered in multiple environments—just as they are largely spared the emotional baggage, if you will, of “how things used to be” in our old galleries. Fresh eyes and minds are posing new questions that can lead us to discover that a beloved object isn’t quite what we thought it was, or equally that an object long relegated to storage is actually exemplary of its type and deserves a moment on the stage. The design team at Studio Joseph—our partners in shaping the inaugural design and layout of our new galleries—brings similarly fresh insights, including those of other disciplinary contexts, such as the galleries at the newly opened MIT Museum, which they designed. The fact that our chief curator, Juliana Ochs Dweck, is trained as a cultural anthropologist reveals an appetite to embrace various perspectives as well as a desire to be challenged by someone who learned to interrogate objects from positions beyond those of the art historian. Each such vantage point builds on others (including the art historians’, let me hasten to note!) to create a blend that promises to be experientially vital.

Colleagues who challenge received methodologies and posit alternatives are essential at a time when the legitimacy of museums has come into question—as are voices of continuity who bring richly layered contextual experience garnered both at Princeton and elsewhere, such as senior collections manager Virginia Pifko, who has spearheaded collections inventories and moves; the Museum’s recently promoted manager of collection preparation and art handling, Todd Baldwin; and many others. If we are to retain the public trust, it is vital that we are aware of the blessings and blinkers of our own histories and traditions. Colleagues who bring divergent experiences of museum practices or who approach its boundaries in varied but still authentic ways can help us thrive. By asking whether certain modes of display or particular structures to collecting remain relevant, they can help us make balanced choices about the legacies of the past and the new choices that are needed to meet the demands of today and tomorrow.

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