If the newly installed Medieval galleries at the Princeton University Art Museum are any indication, the dark ages were not nearly as dark as advertised. Instead, the splendid light-washed space, which opened in February after five years of major structural renovation, builds a telling picture of a richly ornamented past.
The evocative installation, informed by a generous helping of daylight-illumined stained glass and large-scale vintage architectural elements, recreates the awesome ambience of a gothic cathedral as the historically appropriate setting for icons, statues, ceramics, and a splendid array of finely wrought devotional objects. In the process, the new and improved exhibition spaces also function nicely as harbinger of things to come at the museum: an introduction to growing concerns with building stronger community connections, making the featured art more accessible to its many publics, and a desire to make the holdings more attractive to an ever-wider audience.
According museum director James Steward, the contours of the new installations are, in part, a reflection of larger issues and goals. “It’s time to break down boundaries, open out the idea of what a museum is,” he says. “We want to make the museum a friendlier place.”
Steward says that he is especially interested in re-installing the collections in a manner that will draw a broader-based range of visitors and make them comfortable: a carefully balanced process he describes as supporting the scholarly mission while serving the needs of people who may be new to an art museum. As such, the doors of the museum have opened wider to both the university community and the Princeton area at large in the almost-year that Steward his been at the helm.
For the new director, art as a form of community outreach has been a long-standing concern. He came to Princeton from the University of Michigan where, over a decade, he exponentially increased the scope, size, function, and audience of the university’s art museum. And, he says, that is what is going to happen here.
According to Steward, efforts to increase visibility, accessibility, and improved “customer service” are already in the works. Concerned with the museum’s relatively remote location, he has installed banners throughout the campus and on Nassau Street announcing exhibitions and helping visitors find their way to the galleries. “We’re not easy to get to if you don’t know your way,” he says.
But that is just the start. Making visitors comfortable once they are in the galleries is also at the top of his to-do list. To that end the information desk has been transformed into a centrally located “welcome” desk. There are new uniforms for the guards. The entire staff, including the director, has undergone training in customer service. And a new entry gallery is on the drawing boards.
Steward’s plans for the museum center around its future as an art-based town hall — a multifaceted space in which visitors can cheerfully spend social capital while surrounded by masterpieces. Extending museum functions to other locations is also on his wish list.
“We would like to make the museum the gate to the university as well as a more vibrant meeting place for the community,” he says. “Many different things are possible.”
The museum has already instituted a variety of public programs ranging from ground-breaking exhibitions complemented by community-based activities to music, dance, film, and evening gallery events, drawing an ever-growing audience. A series of Thursday evening programs — a mix of art and entertainment including jazz, film, and “Failed Love,” an anti-Valentine event — have attracted as many as 2,400 visitors. Theater, too, is now a permanent part of the agenda. A gallery staging of Moliere’s “Tartuffe,” in French, was a sell-out for several performances, even drawing an out-of town audience.
When the groundbreaking exhibition of objects from the Bering Straits was on view last year the museum partnered with the Arts Council of Princeton for a complementary exhibition of contemporary works, and also staged a related dance and music program at Hinds Plaza, adjacent to the Princeton Public Library. A recent Sunday concert at Richardson Auditorium, which included a private post-concert museum tour, was organized to complement “Architecture as Icon,” an exhibit currently taking center stage at the museum.
Steward says that there is more to come. He would like to launch an exhibition program that extends beyond the academic year. He is especially interested in partnering with other university departments, institutions, and community organizations. And he is thinking about a continuing museum presence outside the walls.
Several such projects are already in the works. In late spring the museum will stage “Inner Sanctum: Memory and Meaning in Princeton’s Faculty Room at Nassau Hall,” May 28 to October 30, an exhibition that explores the history and role of the historic room and its portraits in both reflecting and shaping Princeton’s identity in the actual Faculty Room at Nassau Hall. Plans for a community barbecue on Cannon Green arealso underway.
Most important, however, is the way the art is staged. “We are aware of how the presentation shapes museumgoer’s experience,’ says Steward. Efforts have been made to make the works on view more accessible and to energize their presence with supporting materials. In some cases, the featured art is changed on an ongoing basis to stimulate viewer interest and encourage repeat visits to the museum. In other cases the installation has been redesigned to function as a more accessible, permanent narration.
The Medieval installation is a good example. In addition to much needed structural changes, Steward says that one of the primary goals was to help the viewer understand the complex story that the objects tell — no small challenge when the assembled objects cover some 1,000 years of war, conquest, and social change, spanning cultures and continents. As such, the re-installed work has been carefully culled from the museum’s extensive holdings and positioned to help clarify a complex era and tell the story of their time. Labels, too, have been rewritten to aid the viewer in understanding the significance and the cultural context of individual objects. Steward notes that the labels, in combination with new carry-cards (large plastic-encased cards with information about gallery works), place the assembled objects and paintings in a broader context, allowing them to become part of a larger story about life at the time.
“We had a desire to create certain narratives to ground objects in their moment and show how different regional practices defined the Medieval. The real message is about the value of the cultures that produced these objects. How were they used? What were they made for? What was happening in the societies at the time they were made?”
But it’s not just the objects that tell the story. Steward points out that the installation was the beneficiary of an architectural bonus in its location within the original museum structure, built in the mid-19th century. While much of that building has been absorbed into more recent additions, the lancet windows remain, offering yet another vintage backdrop to set the stage.
“We were able to install the collection in a space informed by the original Venetian Gothic Revival architecture. The elegant proportions of the room and the tracery in the windows speaks to how important Gothic revival architecture is at Princeton,” says Steward.
The redesigned structure of the gallery also gives important architectural support to the collection. Steward makes special note of the stained glass, backlit with daylight, that casts glowing color throughout the gallery. “The quality of the light in the windows drove the planning. Access to the outside world is key. The natural light creates visual context for objects. It speaks to the fact that they were meant to be seen under natural light.”
The reconstructed gallery also helps tell the story. Some of the major structural changes were also designed as vehicles for guiding the viewer and understanding the collection. Most important was the relocation of a stone balustrade which, in its new location, divides the gallery into three discrete viewing areas, a process that allows the division of the collection into the various cultures that defined the period.
Steward says one of the most challenging aspects of the new installation, drawn from the museum’s extensive holdings, was deciding how much and what to display. “It was a struggle to eliminate objects. In the end the quality of objects and the desire to create certain narratives were most important.”
He marvels at the exquisite narrative created by the works that made the final cut — objects he describes as showing the relationship between art and faith. “How sophisticated many of these artisans were. Historians referred to the period as the dark ages. More recent focus in history indicates that these were times of enlightenment.”
He says that, to some degree, the way the gallery works is emblematic a museum’s most important function: to help the visitor make material connections with other ways and other days, noting that, “Art can give us windows into a world different from our own.”
Princeton University Art Museum, 609-258-3788. http://artmuseum.princeton.edu.