The mission of the Princeton University Art Museum is to make the visual arts an essential part of the experience of all Princeton University students; to advance knowledge of art and archaeology; to serve as a world-class destination for members of the local, regional, national, and international communities; and thus to act as a public gateway to the University's intellectual resources.

The Museum does this through the study, preservation, conservation, exhibition, interpretation, and development of its collections; through the preparation and presentation of temporary exhibitions combining cutting-edge scholarship and broad accessibility; and through a dynamic program of educational activities aimed at diverse audiences from novice to expert. Through direct and sustained access to original works of art, and in collaboration with faculty, students, and staff from the Department of Art and Archaeology and many other disciplines, the Museum contributes to the development of critical thinking and visual literacy at Princeton.


In 1882, President James McCosh, a Scottish educator who had come to Princeton in 1868 to modernize what was then known as the College of New Jersey, charged William C. Prime, Class of 1843, and General George McClellan (the former Civil War general and governor of New Jersey) with preparing a curriculum in the history of art. Prime, a New York journalist and founding trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, worked with McClellan to envision a curriculum that would offer direct access to works of art in a museum. They argued, “A museum of art objects is so necessary to the system that without it we are of opinion it would be of small utility to introduce the proposed department.”

This outlook positioned Princeton University at the cutting edge of scholarship in an era when the history of art was a new academic discipline, largely confined to the more advanced universities of Europe. Prime gave impetus to the establishment of a museum with the promise of his collection of pottery and porcelain upon the completion of a fireproof building. From the beginning the Museum was meant to serve a dual purpose: to provide exposure to works of art and to teach the history of art through an encyclopedic collection of world art.

In 1890, the Trumbull-Prime Collection, which also bore Prime's wife's name, was delivered to the Romanesque Revival building designed by A. Page Brown, a building containing the museum, classrooms, and an art library.

Allan Marquand, Class of 1874, professor of art history and, after 1905, chairman of the Department of Art and Archaeology, was appointed the Museum’s first director, a position he held until his retirement in 1922. Marquand was himself a distinguished collector of art, and he made many generous contributions to the Museum whose early history he guided.

In addition to Prime's collection of pottery and porcelain, the Museum of Historic Art, as it was known until 1947, housed casts of famous antiquities and architectural details and ornaments.

Paintings slowly made their way into the collections, especially after Frank Jewett Mather Jr. joined the faculty in 1910 to teach Renaissance art. He became director of the Museum in 1922, the same year McCormick Hall, an addition in Venetian Gothic style after the plans of Ralph Adams Cram, was added to the south side of the A. Page Brown building. The first of many extensions to the Museum, McCormick Hall contained space for teaching art history and allowed the original museum building to be converted solely to museum functions.

A former art critic for The Burlington Magazine, The New York Evening Post, and The Nation, Mather collected in the fields of medieval and Renaissance art but also propelled the Museum into significant holdings in prints and drawings. In the 1930s significant gifts of Chinese and Japanese art came to Princeton to support George Rowley’s courses, the first in that field offered in an American university; courses in American art entered the curriculum during World War II. Mather’s connections in the art world made possible important exhibitions, including showings of work by Cézanne borrowed from Duncan Phillips, who had established the nation’s first museum of modern art in 1921, and of highlights from the Museum of Modern Art, whose founding director, Alfred H. Barr Jr., was a Princeton man (Class of 1922).

Mather retired as director of the Museum in 1946 and was succeeded by Ernest DeWald, Graduate School Class of 1946, one of the so-called “Monuments Men” who played such an important part in the salvaging of Europe’s artistic treasures at the end of World War II. A remarkable number of Princetonians—faculty and alumni—served in this way, in recognition of which Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum lent Johannes Vermeer’s Artist in His Studio, the painting that Adolf Hitler had considered the most important acquisition for the museum he had planned as a monument to himself and to Germanic culture. As director, DeWald led the Museum into a significant commitment to art conservation—although he is remembered as cleaning paintings himself in his office at the top of the old museum building, despite a complete lack of formal training in the field. The collections of Asian art grew during his directorship, under the guidance of Professor Wen C. Fong.

Another Monuments Man, Patrick Kelleher, became director in 1960. During his tenure the A. Page Brown building was razed in 1963, making way for an International Style building designed by Steinmann and Cain in a campaign that was completed in 1966. During this era, the Docent Association was established to provide Museum guides and staff the Museum Store. In these years the art of the ancient Americas became an important new focus, thanks to the prescient collecting of Gillett G. Griffin, lecturer in the Department of Art and Archaeology, faculty curator, and generous benefactor.

Photography also came into focus during this time, with the gift in 1971 of the David Hunter McAlpin, Class of 1920, collection of photographs and the establishment of a fund enabling the purchase of photography. In 1972, Peter Bunnell, previously a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, came to Princeton to occupy the first endowed chair in the history of photography in the United States. Bunnell became director of the Museum in 1973, a position he held until 1978, during which time major exhibitions were mounted, including a landmark exhibition on the Arts and Crafts in America that precipitated the rebirth of interest in this important movement. In 1980, Allen Rosenbaum, who had served as associate director during the Bunnell years, was promoted to director. A specialist in old master painting, Rosenbaum had the vision to build up major holdings in Renaissance and Baroque painting, particularly works in the Mannerist tradition. In addition to developing major exhibitions of Maya art and celebrating the University’s 250th anniversary, Rosenbaum led a major campaign resulting in the renovation of the Museum’s interiors and in a 27,000-square-foot addition—the Mitchell Wolfson Jr., Class of 1963, Wing, designed by Mitchell/Giurgola and dedicated in 1989. This expansion provided new exhibition space, a spacious conservation studio, and new seminar and study storage rooms for all areas of the collection, facilitating the use of the collections for teaching.

The first decade of the twenty-first century witnessed another period of growth, during which a new director, Susan M. Taylor, was able to establish the first endowed curatorships and other positions at the Museum, with the support of benefactors including Diane and James Burke, Preston Haskell, and the Peter Jay Sharp and Andrew W. Mellon foundations. Today the Museum, under the leadership of director James Steward, is one of the nation’s foremost art museums. The collections established under the directorships of Marquand and Mather, as well as those initiated later, have greatly exceeded those of a study collection. Numbering more than 72,000 objects, the collections range chronologically from ancient to contemporary art and concentrate geographically on the Mediterranean regions, Western Europe, Asia, the United States, and Latin America. An outstanding collection of Greek and Roman antiquities includes ceramics, marbles, bronzes, and Roman mosaics from Princeton University's excavations in Antioch. Medieval Europe is represented by sculpture, metalwork, and stained glass. The collection of Western European paintings and sculpture includes important examples from the early Renaissance through the nineteenth century, and the collection of twentieth-century and contemporary art—with a particular emphasis on the twenty-first century—continues to grow.

Among the greatest strengths in the Museum are the collections of Chinese art, with important holdings in bronzes, tomb figurines, painting, and calligraphy, and pre-Columbian art, with remarkable examples of the art of the Maya—the Museum’s holdings in this area are considered to be among the finest in the world. The Museum has distinguished collections of old master prints and drawings as well as a comprehensive collection of more than 27,000 original photographs. African art is represented, as is Northwest Coast Indian art. Not housed in the Museum but under its auspices is the John B. Putnam Jr. Memorial Collection of twentieth- and twenty-first-century sculpture, including works by such modern masters as Alexander Calder, Jacques Lipchitz, Henry Moore, and Pablo Picasso; the Museum also administers the University's Princeton Portraits Collection. Temporary exhibitions are organized throughout the year, many motivated by the collections and coordinated with the University curriculum, but presented for the benefit of a broad public.

Contributed by Anonymous
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