This semester, Princeton University Art Museum Director James Steward is teaching ART 488: “The Modern Museum: Between Preservation & Action.” The course raises an array of questions centered on the role of today’s museum. How must it respond to the digital age and to a world of increasingly porous borders? Can it run the risk of being seen as activist? What must it do to assure its continuing relevance and survival?
The course traced the origins of museums and continuing traditions of ordering knowledge, as well as discussing its opportunities for enacting change. Among tools of influence at a museum’s disposal, the class discussed selection of exhibition themes, diversification of internal staff, acquisition strategy, restitution and repatriation, architecture and design choices, and the critical importance of directly involving members of communities and cultures central to an exhibition. A series of case studies represented both the failed attempts and the triumphs of high-profile institutions.
“Above all else, I hope students in the course have taken away a deepened sense that museums remain vital sites of inquiry, even as they have become contested sites," said Steward. "As I knew they would, students in the course have taught me some of what the platonic ideal of a museum in the twenty-first century might want to be and ought not to be.”
Fifth-year graduate student in Near Eastern Studies, Jamie O'Connell, who has experience working for cultural heritage protection organizations, helped update the course syllabus as part of her internship with Steward. “The syllabus was purposely designed to appeal to students from different disciplines,” she said, “and those currently enrolled come from various departments, including architecture, art and archaeology, comparative literature, computer science, and history. A few have previously worked in museums, including at the PUAM. This has made for some lively discussions in class, as Dr. Steward encourages the students to bring their past experiences as museum visitors and employees into conversation with the assigned readings.”
“I can honestly say that no other class at Princeton that I’ve taken has engaged in such honest discussion regardless of topic,” said A&A senior Eloise Schreier. “Professor Steward has created a space where we can earnestly approach the concept of the ‘modern museum’ through criticism and curiosity, answering our questions with his own lifetime of experiences and expertise. As someone potentially hoping to go into a museum profession, this class has been a crash course in the real world of museology that I have been searching for and no one else is willing to offer.”
“We covered topics ranging from the origins of modern museums, to practical and ethical issues in museum funding, and exhibition design case studies,” said A&A graduate student Jenica Brown. “The museums' role in society, for good and for ill, has been contested since the beginning, and there will always be more to debate as society evolves.”
O’Connell credits the class with solidifying her career goal to work in or with a museum. “What I have found most enjoyable about the class,” she said, “is the extent to which my previously held assumptions about museum policies have been challenged. For example, based on my work in cultural heritage protection, I considered the issue of artifact repatriation to be fairly black and white. But after preparing readings for the course and discussing the material with Dr. Steward and the other students, I realize that there is a great deal more nuance to the issue that is generally not reflected in scholarship or the media.”
Schreier acknowledged the dense and difficult quality of the material covered, but “the manner in which Professor Steward teaches it feels less like a class and more like a think tank,” she said. “Each seminar is structured loosely around one of the impossible conundrums facing the museum today, and we spend the seminar shifting through everything we’ve compiled to try and reach potential solutions. We’ve discussed restitution, architecture, modern media, accessibility, religion, and sustainability just to name a few topics, where we carefully chart the chronology of each issue leading up to today and use that to influence our problem-solving discussion.”
Steward’s firsthand perspective on the questions facing the role of the museum has clearly been an invaluable facet of the course, providing, in O’Connell’s words, “a unique opportunity to learn about the practicalities of running a museum that scholarship does not generally offer.” “A highlight was definitely getting an inside look at the process of rebuilding the Princeton University Museum of Art,” said Brown. “Dr. Steward shared details about the process of creating the design with Sir David Adjaye, and the consideration that was taken regarding its multifunctionality as a welcoming public and educational space, as well as its visual cohesion with the rest of Princeton's campus.” Schreier echoed, “the unmitigated access we get to the museum world via Professor Steward is a highlight of the course. As the head of PUAM, he is all-knowing, so any question we’ve had as a class he can answer both theoretically and with a handful of real-life examples that you wouldn’t be able to access anywhere else.”
“Above all else, I hope students in the course have taken away a deepened sense that museums remain vital sites of inquiry, even as they have become contested sites. As I knew they would, students in the course have taught me some of what the platonic ideal of a museum in the twenty-first century might want to be and ought not to be.” – Princeton University Art Museum Director James Steward