The Historical Society of Princeton’s newest exhibition, “We Love Princeton: Stories from the Street,” invites visitors to explore the history behind Princeton’s roads, which are easy to overlook either because they are too close — under our feet (literally) — or because they are made distant, abstracted into mere lines or arrows on our ubiquitous GPS systems.
“Stories from the Street,” made possible in part by a grant from the New Jersey Historical Commission, was the result of efforts of society members eager to bring streets to life in an almost three-dimensional way. Exhibition designer Daniel Schnur and curator Ellen Snyder helped realize that vision.
The exhibition features materials ranging from centuries-old maps to current memorabilia from local businesses. Though guests are encouraged to learn about Princeton’s history, they are also invited to have a good time while doing so. Interactive elements, such as a Jeopardy-style street-themed quiz, encourage participation, imparting a sense that the shape of Princeton is not determined by a distant past but formed by a living and ever-changing present.
“Stories from the Street” encompasses two small galleries. That the exhibition unfolds in such intimate spaces helps communicate the message that even something that seems impersonal or arbitrary — street names — can affect people in unexpected ways.
The walls of the first gallery are lined with maps, so visitors are literally surrounded by a timeline in cartographic form. This timeline charts how dramatically the decades have defined and re-defined what we know as “Princeton.” The earliest map in the exhibition dates back to 1709; the most recent is a 2013 map composed after the consolidation of Princeton Borough and Township, a long-sought merger that took effect on January 1.
Those who linger over the oldest map on view are unlikely to find anything they recognize as the town known today. After all, the map represents not New Jersey but “Nova Caesarea” (its earlier name), when the area was still an English colony. There, Princeton exists only as an expanse of open land, christened “Stony Brook.” As guests follow the maps around the room, the town develops as if a slow-motion film. It changes from an indeterminate spread of land to a vaguely parsed place to the heavily lined, detailed cartographic vision that appears today.
When encircled by these evolving visions, visitors are privy to a visual overview of how the centuries have changed this community. The Historical Society provides a magnifying glass for general use, so viewers can scrutinize the maps, becoming witnesses to the birth of the streets they know so well.
There is a dramatic shift from first gallery’s emphasis on maps to the second gallery’s exploration of Princeton streets — not by direction but by experience, and by a strong human element. The second gallery is divided into two parts. One side is dedicated to interactive quizzes about the streets in general. The other celebrates four major ones and represents them with images and objects unique to each. They were selected because of their engagement with five themes that the Historical Society believes stand at the core of Princeton’s history: immigration, diversity, education, innovation, and research. Thus inspired, the organization singled out Nassau Street, Paul Robeson Place, University Place, and Einstein Drive to symbolize what defines Princeton.
In centuries past “King’s Highway” served as a major transportation route through Princeton, influencing the town’s development. The road still does, though now it is known as Nassau Street. The exhibition acknowledges the long commercial history of Nassau Street with a review of businesses past and present. University Place on the other hand is a celebration of university life through the decades. Einstein Drive, similarly, celebrates Albert Einstein, perhaps Princeton’s most famous resident.
Meanwhile, the eponymous Paul Robeson Place is a tribute to that Princeton-born polymath. Though the tension is not made explicit, it is important to remember that the connection between Robeson and Princeton is not without its difficulties. Robeson was a celebrated singer, actor, activist, football player, and lawyer, yet he did not attend Princeton University. Instead, Robeson (1898-1976) began attending Rutgers University in 1915, becoming the third African-American to be admitted there.
Only during World War II would African-American students graduate from Princeton. In fact, the university’s Mudd Manuscript library contains an early-20th century letter from one Princeton University administrator on the subject: “We have never had any colored students here, though there is nothing in the University statutes to prevent their admission. It is possible, however, in our proximity to the South that Negro students would find Princeton less comfortable than some other institutions.”
After being elected as valedictorian at Rutgers, Robeson would later earn a law degree from Columbia Law School. Though he ranged far from Princeton, Robeson’s artistic work and political convictions have nonetheless contributed to the town’s identity in spite of everything.
But “Stories from the Street” tells history in a less conventional way as well. The second wall is lined with a series of games that range from strictly historical to experiential. Guests can test their knowledge with the Jeopardy-inspired “Revolutionary Princeton,” take a multiple choice quiz on “Princeton University,” rack wits about “Princeton Women,” square off against “Princeton Trees,” and guess “Streets that Locals Like.”
Fun games and odd maps aside, “Stories from the Street” is particularly appropriate for the Historical Society, which celebrates its 75th anniversary this year. It is also a vibrant example of one of the Historical Society’s key goals: to enliven the history of Princeton for visitors by demonstrating how the smallest detail can summon forth a past, a history, and a wealth of stories. As executive director Erin Dougherty puts it, the exhibition aims to tell the story of Princeton through something that seems entirely impersonal but is in fact at the heart of the town. A street reminds citizens of “the people who give it life; there’s a human dimension to it. It is people who create change.”
With cozy gallery spaces and interactive features, “Stories from the Street” embraces the idea that the past is not so distant from the present as it may seem.” Indeed, if we are to believe the words of William Faulkner, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past!”
The Historical Society of Princeton’s “We Love Princeton: Stories from the Street” sustains that axiom, but proves that the past is as messy and mutable as the lives of the people who lived in it.
We Love Princeton: Stories from the Street, Princeton Historical Society, 158 Nassau Street, Princeton. Wednesdays through Sundays noon to 4 p.m. $4. 609-921-6748 or www.princetonhistory.org.