- African Arts at the Princeton University Art Museum
Established in 1882 as an encyclopedic teaching museum, the Princeton University Art Museum in Princeton, New Jersey, is home to a group of nearly 750 works of African art, covering almost 2500 years of artistic production on the continent and in its diasporas (Fig. 1). Founded as the Museum of Historic Art at what was then called the College of New Jersey, it was created in tandem with the Department of Art and Archaeology, whose interests profoundly shaped its collecting and exhibition practices.1 The Museum's global holdings of over 100,000 objects span human creativity across time and space, with specializations in ancient Greece and Rome, Asia, western Europe, the United States, Latin America, and Africa.
The Museum's African collection, started in 1937, focuses on historic African arts from the sub-Sahara, with particular strengths in central and western African sculpture and masks. These have been complemented in recent decades by contemporary works by artists from the continent and its diasporas. Closely linked to the university's teaching program, the presentation of African works at Princeton—as both objects of ethnographic and aesthetic interest—has mirrored changing attitudes toward non-Western art both in the field and on campus.
non-western art at the natural history museum
The collecting, research, and presentation of African arts at Princeton have always reflected the academic interests of its faculty and have varied across eras as well as by department or campus institution. In the mid-1800s, organizing the world—whether by sorting rocks, assembling fossils, or classifying people—had captured the campus's attention. Given this focus, African arts were first collected and displayed at Princeton through the lens of ethnology and natural history.
Following a slightly earlier trajectory than the Art Museum, and a separate collecting and exhibiting ethos as well, the E.M. Museum of Geology and Archaeology (also known as the "Guyot Museum" and the "Museum and Art Gallery") housed non-Western objects in the present-day Faculty Room of Nassau Hall from 1874 to 1909, and later in Guyot Hall as the Museum of Natural History from 1909 to 2000.2 Curated by Swiss-American geographer Arnold Guyot, Princeton's first professor of geology and geography, the Nassau Hall installation's seemingly disparate "antiquities" (anthropological, ethnological, and archaeological objects) gained logic through their spatial organization, which reflected Guyot's linear view of societal progress (Turner 2004: 256). Starting with the dinosaurs at the rear of the room, progressing to so-called primitive cultures at the center (including both Native North Americans such as Inuits and "Pueblos," as well as Neolithic Swiss lake-dwellers), the wunderkammer-like display approached its zenith with the plaster-cast Greek sculptures. The curatorial climax came with an oil portrait of George Washington, a reflection of Guyot's endorsement of the theory of American Manifest Destiny (Blackman 2017b). Present in both the museum and in his widely disseminated textbooks, Guyot's taxonomy was undeniably racist: It privileged a "normal" white Greco-Roman ideal (illustrated by a tousle-headed Apollo Belvedere) over other supposedly derivative races, including Africans.3 The separation of the races and their arts was underscored in 1889, when paintings and "fine arts"—such as the aforementioned Greek marbles—were moved from the E.M. Museum to the new Museum of Historic Arts (Turner 2004: 261).
The historical record is vague as to where African works fit into the physical layout of the Faculty Room exhibition, or if they were ever on view in this early space. Nonetheless, the hierarchical values of its collections and exhibitions—namely the [End Page 72] separation of non-Western from Western arts because of their perceived evolutionary inferiority—are important for understanding later presentations of African objects in Princeton's Museum of Natural History. By 1905, the museum in Nassau Hall was organized into geology, paleontology, and archaeology sections, an apparent change from the now-deceased Guyot's original scheme, along with several "ethnological" subsections. Four years later, the present-day Geosciences Building (Guyot Hall) was built to accept the growing dinosaur fossil collection; like the last installation of Nassau Hall, it...