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Insitute Donates Einstein's Furniture To Historical Society

Matthew Hersh

The Princeton Historical Society announced on Thursday that it had received a collection of furniture that had once belonged to Albert Einstein. The furniture, which was part of a donation to the Historical Society from the Institute for Advanced Study, was used by Einstein to furnish his house at 112 Mercer Street.

"We're just so very excited to be custodians of these pieces," said Gail Stern, director of the Historical Society, at a Thursday afternoon reception celebrating the donation.

Einstein's personal possessions have passed through only a handful of channels since his death in 1955. His stepdaughter, Margo, was the primary curator of his residence and belongings up to her death in 1986. She subsequently left Einstein's property and remaining belongings to the Institute, which has watched over the furniture ever since.

Sixty-five pieces of Einstein's furniture make up the donation, including his favorite tub armchair and his family's Biedermeir-style grandfather clock. All the pieces will be subjected to methods of conservation and restoration; Several pieces, however, including Einstein's music stand and pipe, are already on display at Bainbridge House, at 158 Nassau Street.

The music stand represents Einstein's passion for music and devotion to the art throughout his tenure at the Institute. Maureen Smyth, curator of the Historical Society, said that items like the music stand offer an inside look at the "real man behind the icon."

"Einstein found a beautiful and intricate order in music, one that inspired and informed his scientific theories," Ms. Smyth said.

The furniture ranges from a Queen Anne table made in Austria between 1730 and 1770, to an upholstered "throne" chair with brass finials from the early 1900s. Ms. Smyth said that every item in the collection will be subjected to several intensely detailed conservation processes. These include looking into the pieces for insect damage and overall cleaning, as many of the pieces have dulled with age.

"All work that our conservators do is reversible, and no harsh chemical treatments are done ‹ everything is water-soluble," she said.

The conservation process is not cheap, however. The Historical Society has hired a professional conservator to begin work on selected items. Preliminary estimates put the cost of cleaning and conservation of the entire collection at roughly $60,000. In light of these costs, the Historical Society has received an $18,000 grant from the New Jersey Historical Commission to facilitate the conservation process.

Concerns Quelled

Ms. Smyth tried to quell the concerns of antique furniture connoisseurs who recognize a definitive difference between processes of conservation and restoration by emphasizing the Historical Society's time, money, and effort that will be expended in dealing with a project of this magnitude and importance.

"We totally have our eyes on the ball," she said before concluding her comments with a general sentiment regarding the project. "This is a big deal for us."

The donation is an important event for the Princeton community, as well as visitors to the area. Dee Patberg, president of the Historical Society, said that in the four years the organization's website has been active, 60 percent of the inquiries coming in online have been "about Einstein and his life in [Princeton]."

"This is a gift which we will be privileged to restore and preserve for the community," Ms. Patberg said.

Anyone familiar with Bainbridge House and its spatial capacities will wonder where an additional 65 pieces of furniture and artifacts will be stored. According to Ms. Stern, most of the furniture will be kept in an "undisclosed space for safety purposes." She added that the storage space is climate controlled, safe, and secure. The Historical Society is planning on using the second floor of Bainbridge for a room devoted to Einstein. Currently, that space is used for offices, a conference area, and the Historical Society Library. Conversion of this second floor space will take some time and a considerable amount of fundraising, Ms. Stern said.

Einstein Room

The planned "Einstein Room" itself is not going to be so much a recreation of his Princeton domicile, but more of a representation of the man, his achievements, and a look into his private life.

"We're not going to try to recreate a room in his house," Ms. Stern said. "We plan to use some furnishings and artifacts to interpret his life."

The Historical Society's acquisition represents a triumph for a Princeton community that, while having an impact on the outside world, likes to keep its legacies local as well. At Thursday evening's reception, Ms. Stern offered the seemingly obvious but overlooked alternate destination for Mr. Einstein's possessions.

"We know the Smithsonian would have been very happy with [the furniture]," she said before a both jovial and thankful ovation.

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