Can the language of architecture articulate a mission? Princeton University Art Museum Director James Steward posed this question in a talk over Wintersession in January 2021. If architecture can speak a language, and if this language can articulate aspirations and inspirations for a space, then the new art museum for Princeton’s campus—being designed by Ghanaian architect Sir David Adjaye, best known for the design of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.—speaks a language of openness, movement, and connection.
The new museum, scheduled to open its doors in the fall of 2024, is planned to be double the area of its predecessor: this redistribution of space aims to bring with it a redistribution of artistic equity. Many who had the chance to visit the old museum are familiar with its “upstairs-downstairs problem,” as Steward puts it. While the former PUAM’s bright first-floor galleries were occupied primarily by Western art and artists, its vast collections of art objects from the rest of the world were sequestered to the poorly lit galleries of the basement. One of the primary goals of the new museum is to present Princeton’s globe-spanning* collections on equitable footing, radically reconsidering the Eurocentric narratives the museum once told.
Adjaye’s design addresses the issue of the artistic hierarchies that vertically stacked galleries create by placing all the galleries on the same level. The building is made up of three stories: a ground floor, the galleries, and a third floor comprising administrative and office spaces. Composed of nine interlocking cubes called “pavilions,” the galleries are volumetrically dynamic, allowing for a visitor to flow naturally from one to the next. The galleries won’t be grouped by nation, but rather will strive to tell cross-cultural narratives grouped by “thematic moments,” as Adjaye put it in a talk with Steward in October of 2020. The halls connecting these galleries, which Steward refers to as “in-between galleries,” will also contain art, allowing for simultaneous movement and curatorial commentary. Spaces such as these “in-between galleries” promise to spark connections between Princeton’s vast collections, ending the practice of culturally isolating objects or collections.
Many features of the new museum are sure to impress the gallerygoer: from its facade’s oscillating bands of polished and matte stone, drawing inspiration from Minoru Yamasaki’s Robertson Hall; to its laminated timber ceiling structures, reminiscent of its predecessor’s teak detailing; to its considerably larger size. Perhaps the most striking feature, however, is the building’s emphasis on movement, a theme that runs throughout the design’s structural core. Adjaye’s design intentionally interacts with its architectural and natural surroundings, positioning the new museum as the beating heart at the soul of Princeton’s campus. The ground floor will house a Grand Hall, which will function as an event space, an auditorium, and a lecture hall. Two “art walks” will run perpendicularly through the museum’s axes on this floor, turning the space into a conduit for campus passage. Visitors will be able to choose from one of six entry points along the museum’s perimeter: one could enter the museum on the north side of campus, for example, using the art walk on the north-south axis to continue on to Brown Hall, or vice versa. A location to gather, a shortcut through campus, and a haven from inclement weather, the museum will automatically assert itself as a nexus of campus life. At the same time, glass windows packed with objects will frame the Grand Hall’s corners, ensuring that one encounters art as soon as they set foot in the building.
Structurally, Adjaye’s design promises to promote diverse practices of curation and representation. One of Steward’s goals for the new building is that it should have “all fronts and no backs,” and Adjaye’s design undoubtedly achieves this. It looks outward, dynamically interacting with the campus structures it borders. Adjaye says of the project, “The reconstruction of the Princeton University Art Museum is conceived as a campus within the campus, a space of genuine inquiry where the exhibition of diverse practices, learning as a synthesis of knowledge, and cross-cultural connections weave together into a singular experience that encompasses a multiplicity of ideas and peoples.”
What remains unknown, then, is how the curators of the museum will use the space. Steward noted in his Wintersession lecture that the moment when objects are placed in a room together, an environment is shaped which is implicitly biased. If the language of Adjaye’s architecture articulates a commitment to diversity, then it is the role of the curators to carry this commitment to fruition. Adjaye’s pavilions show the potential for conversations between art objects that completely upend the traditional art historical canon. For instance, curators could use these spaces to juxtapose 18th-century Hudson River School landscapes with objects created by North American Indigenous artists, reframing portrayals of the American landscape to highlight an Indigenous presence—the possibilities of telling artistic narratives from perspectives that haven’t been seen before are endless. If Princeton’s curators succeed in bringing these underrepresented narratives to the forefront in their modes of representation, then the new PUAM facility shows true potential to be a leader amongst its peers. On the roles of museums as institutions, Steward said in his lecture, “Museums can and must be instruments of making us better citizens of the world.” In the possibilities Adjaye’s plans present for fostering cross-cultural dialogue, uniting campus community, and provoking deep reflection, the new Princeton University Art Museum appears primed to do just this.
* In the past, Princeton’s art museum has been identified as an “encyclopedic museum,” a term Steward has noted is problematic, perhaps because it connotes the imperial impulse to document and collect. Steward opts instead for “globe-spanning” as a term to describe the museum’s far-reaching collections. One of the goals for the new museum, articulated by Steward in a talk with Adjaye, is to “engage equitably with the globe-spanning cultures within the museum’s purview.”