A&A Chair Professor Rachael Z. DeLue delivered the Princeton University Art Museum's annual Keating lecture, titled “Against the Grain, or What We Can Learn from Early American Museums that Got it Wrong.”
DeLue began by describing two early museums: Charles Willson Peale’s Philadelphia Museum, open from 1786 to 1849, and Princeton’s own natural history museum, open from 1874 to 2000. Their shortcomings were apparent: presenting a biased view as a factual snapshot of the world; glorifying white, wealthy men at the expense of every other demographic; and relegating the representation of Native Americans to objects associated with extinction. DeLue tasked today’s museums not just with sound curatorial strategy, but with transparency and context in presenting objects so that the viewer is immediately made aware of the interpretation at hand and able to draw independent conclusions.
Acknowledging the missteps in the two examples of failed museums, however, DeLue singled out an important element worth salvaging. With “magic flowers” and “singing birds” exhibits, for example, or a trompe l’oeil hanging catalog compelling museumgoers to swipe at the wall, Peale enraptured his audience and brought his museum to life. DeLue proposed taking that page from his problematic playbook. For all that they might aim to deliver, DeLue offered, “Museums in the twenty-first century need to be good for the soul.”
“Museums in the twenty-first century need to be good for the soul.”
– Professor Rachael Z. DeLue