Princeton Museum and Collecting

Harold Edgerton, American, 1903–1990: Milk Drop Coronet, 1957. Chromogenic print, The Sondra Gilman and Celso Gonzalez-Falla Collection of Photography.

My first visit to the Princeton Museum confirmed that I’m particularly sensitive to exhibitions which present the work of collectors without providing any context on who the collectors are.* This is going to feel like a knock on the Princeton Museum. It’s not intended that way and I haven’t spent enough time in that museum to really come to an opinion. This is just me figuring out more of what I like and dislike in museums.

*Something I first began to figure out with SFMOMA’s Logan Collection show. Note, if done correctly as with The Steins Collect, this kind of show can be very interesting since it stops being just about the art.

My problems though is due to the fact that collections—especially of modern art—are almost always specimen-based collections which reveal little about a collector’s specific taste and instead focus on the already-acknowledged big names. The Shared Vision exhibition is a perfect example of this. Yes, it makes a great primer for introducing people to many of the greats. At the same time, it’s more of an exercise in name-recognition. One or two images from each important photographer. Very little extra context about who each photographer is and why they’re important.

At least the photos on display were important and relevant choices for the photographers at hand.* But still, besides the “I know who that is” or “ah, this is a good example of this photographer’s work” recognition game there wasn’t much to offer. I’d love to take a beginning photography class to the show. But it didn’t offer much to anyone** who has experienced second-hand photography history.***

*Something which is easier to do with photography since there’s rarely just one print in existence.

**Such as my wife.

*** Well, that’s not entirely true. For whatever reason I’m finding myself becoming somewhat obsessed with Aaron Siskind now.

Anyway, I’d love for expert collectors to focus more on showing me new things and explaining what THEY like and why they think it’s good rather than presenting a bunch of art which everyone already agrees is important.

Early Classic (Monte Albán III-A), Zapotec Anthropomorphic urn ('companion' type), A.D. 250–500 Gray clay, brown on surface, very micaceous h. 18.2 cm., w. 16.7 cm., d. 15.7 cm. (7 3/16 x 6 9/16 x 6 3/16 in.) Museum purchase, gift of Sally Sample Aall y1968-236

The other part of the museum which I went through was the collection of “ancient art.” Very mixed feelings here. And again, I found myself wondering more about the collectors than the collection. The basement of the museum is divided into “Ancient Asia,” “Ancient Americas,” and “Ancient Art.”* Half of the Asian rooms were closed so I only saw the Chinese Art. That said, everything is noted chiefly for its age and function and seems like it was collected without any sense of the culture it came from.

*Is interesting how the webpage displays this differently than the printed maps.

Ancient Americas includes a large and very good collection of Mexican art (Zapotec and Maya in particular) but lumps it in with art from Chile to the Alaska including some fairly-recent American Indian pieces. Some more information on culture here regarding the ball games but still pretty thin, especially given how it lumps all the Americas together.

In both cases (plus the tiny African Art room), there’s a sense that either nothing modern exists from those four continents or that anything tainted with the indigenous craft label is better lumped in with the “ancient stuff.”

I’m no means an expert curator here but the way things were displayed really got on my nerves. From personal experience, I’d love to see modern indigenous work—suck as the black on black San Ildefonso pottery*—displayed as modern art rather than ancient craft.

*One day, when I have the money, I’ll return to that pueblo prepared to fall in love with something expensive.

Ancient Art meanwhile dedicates specific rooms to Egyptian, Greek, and Roman art. And gives a lot more information on who is depicted, how things are made, what myths are being referenced, etc. It’s a pretty notable difference to the way everything else is displayed.

I couldn’t help but wonder whether the brown-person rooms were intentional or if this is how things had always been. And I found myself really wondering how all the items found their way into the museum. The impression I ended up in was that the strong points of each collection represented particular and specific collectors and collections which were left to the museum at some point in the past.

I’d love to know more about the collectors here and get a sense for who they were and how they came to specialize in the regions that they did. There’s such a clear focus in all the specific little subcollections that it just feels like getting a sense of who the academic behind that specific research is would bring a lot more interest to the pieces.

Or maybe that’s just me and my own weird reaction to having visited the Princeton museum on a day I wasn’t feeling up to it. I’ll have plenty more opportunities to visit. I’m very much looking forward to seeing The Itinerant Languages of Photography* and, as a new New Jersey resident, New Jersey as Non-Site has a special amount of morbid appeal as I get my footing here.

*They had me with the Iturbide image they’re using in the marketing.

Author: Nick Vossbrink

Blogging about Photography, Museums, Printing, and Baseball Cards from both Princeton New Jersey and the San Francisco Bay Area. On Twitter as @vossbrink, WordPress at, and the web at

7 thoughts on “Princeton Museum and Collecting”

  1. Pingback: MoMA | n j w v

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