Princeton Personality by Jean Stratton

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Gail Stern has not always been passionate about history. Early on, art was her great love, and an interest in history was not even a glimmer on the horizon.

"Even when I was at Brown, which was in Providence, and not far from Boston and all that history, I wasn't really that interested in it," reports Ms. Stern.

How did such a non-history buff become director of the Princeton Historical Society, a position she has held for the past 10 years?

"I think the interest was probably there, lying just under the surface waiting to be tapped," she says. "It just took a little time."

Even in the eighth grade, in fact, she was aware of history and its powerful effect.

"When I think about growing up in school, I think about an upcoming event here at the Historical Society on October 16: a panel discussion of people's memories of President Kennedy's assassination.

"I vividly remember JFK's assassination," continues Ms. Stern. "I was in the eighth grade, and Mr. Needham, our teacher, told the class. I remember that I just didn't understand how it could happen, and that it had a very powerful effect."

Art School

Born and brought up in Longport, a suburb of Atlantic City, Ms. Stern had a happy childhood with younger brother, Robert and sister, Laurie. Her parents, Herb and Faith Stern encouraged Gail's interest in art.

"I liked to draw, and I especially enjoyed art in school, but I had other interests too," says Ms. Stern. "I loved the beach, especially in the fall when the crowds left. We loved growing up near Atlantic City.

"It was also great to go to the Boardwalk and go on the amusement rides. I loved the Steel Pier and seeing all the big performers there, like Paul Anka and Frankie Avalon. Every year, we'd go to the Miss America Pageant parade. When I was older, though, this became pass=E9 =8B we felt we became just too sophisticated for it!"

Ms. Stern also enjoyed English and French at Atlantic City High School, and was active in the Student Council and her sorority. Friday night movies were a regular outing with her friends.

Attending Brown University in 1968, in the midst of a turbulent time in American society, Ms. Stern was caught up in the flow of events, and in particular, opposition to the Vietnam War.

"I was active in the anti-war movement," she explains. "We had a student strike at Brown, and I stenciled the anti-war T-shirts. I was an activist."

Academic Experimentation

It was also a time of academic experimentation at Brown, and students were given wide latitude in choice of studies.

"I made up a combined major =8B art, archaeology, and anthropology," recalls Ms. Stern. "I named it art and society, and took all the courses I liked, but not things that now I wish I had taken, like politics, economics, and history.

"I especially enjoyed my art class with guest professor Edward Koren, a cartoonist," she continues. "It was very exciting to be in a class with him."

Also while at college, she worked in Brown's Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology. "This really turned me on to museums," she notes, "and Jim Deetz, Professor of historic American archaeology, really got me started in this profession.

History was becoming more than a glimmer on the horizon now, and her interest piqued, Ms. Stern went for a master's degree in American civilization at the University of Pennsylvania in 1972.

"This was a multi-disciplinary approach to American society, linking history, art, and literature," she explains. "Looking at history and society through different facets.

Archaeological Dig

"I enjoyed it very much. It was hands-on, too. We had an archaeological dig at Valley Forge and found Revolutionary War buttons and bullets and bones of pigs and chickens."

Ms. Stern also found that she liked Philadelphia, and remained there for her first job, cataloging the 18th Century and 19th Century American glass collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

"I loved it!" she says enthusiastically. "I've always had the right kind of work. I have been very blessed to work in my field the past 30 years."

After three years at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, she moved on to become Field Study Coordinator at Temple University, placing students and interns in Philadelphia area museums. This was followed by a stint as associate director of the Pennsylvania Humanities Council, where she oversaw grant programs to museums, schools, universities, and other non-profits.

After five years in jobs emphasizing administrative work, Ms. Stern longed for more hands-on responsibilities. "I felt I had to get my hands on some objects and into a museum setting," she explains.

So, in 1974, she accepted a position as curator of the Balch Institute for Ethnic Studies, a multi-cultural library and museum in Philadelphia.

Very Powerful

"It was very interesting," she recalls. "We did exhibitions on stereotyping, using objects, photos, and documents relevant to ethnic groups in the U.S. Our exhibitions traveled nationally. In this series of exhibitions, we included as many groups as possible and put it in as broad a context as possible. It was fascinating, very graphic, and very powerful. It got people's attention, and then educated them about discrimination."

Ms. Stern stayed at the Institute until 1993, serving as museum director for nine years.

Through this succession of positions relating to art, archaeology, and history, Ms. Stern was becoming more and more aware of the importance of presenting history through the means of exhibits, and also of the need to emphasize local history.

"People need to know about history in order to understand their own lives and to help them determine their future," she explains. "It is very important to instill an interest in history through our exhibitions. That is my philosophy. If a child comes in and sees his grandfather or cousin in a photo, he will relate to it. It personalizes it for them."

The opportunity to head north to Princeton and serve as director of the Historical Society of Princeton became available in 1993, and Ms. Stern looked forward to the move.

"I liked the idea of being in Princeton," she says. "It's a lovely place to live and work. The University setting appealed to me, and Princeton is a stimulating place because of the availability of so many opportunities =8B concerts, lectures, events =8B and because the people are so bright."

Definite Ideas

In addition, Ms. Stern had definite ideas about the Historical Society's future direction.

"I said at the time that I would be most interested, if I came to the Society, in broadening its scope and reaching out to the community; doing programs and exhibits with segments of the community that had not participated before. The board said that was exactly what they wanted."

As the Society's mission Statement notes: "The Historical Society of Princeton (HSP) is a museum and library dedicated to interpreting the history of Princeton, New Jersey, with community support and involvement. Its activities are inspired by the past, with the goal of informing the future... In all its endeavors, HSP continues to be committed to a broad and inclusive representation of Princeton, to fostering collaborative partnership, and to strengthening the community."

So it was a good fit from the start, reports Ms. Stern.

"For one thing, I really could see the difference between a historical society like ours and a museum. I began to see that a historical society is a group of people interested in history. I began to see how important people are to the organization, and I began to see how important local history is. Everything stems from local history. It's people's lives, their stories. Princeton Revolutionary War History is a big factor here, of course, but we often do exhibits on more recent history as well."

In fact, the first exhibition presented during Ms. Stern's directorship =8B which had actually been planned prior to her arrival =8B was focused on Princeton's Italian-American community. The first exhibition under her stewardship was on Albert Einstein, who spent the latter part of his life in Princeton.

The Historical Society features one exhibit a year in its historic Bainbridge House headquarters, a pre-Revolutionary War structure, dating to 1766.

Memorable exhibits for Ms. Stern include the Italian-American collection, 250 years of Princeton Jewish history, and Princeton's African-American community.

Great Asset

Long-time Princeton resident Fannie Floyd worked on the African-American exhibit with Ms. Stern, helping to gather memorabilia from churches and the neighborhood, and arranging interviews. She is an admirer of Ms. Stern's ability to focus on what is important and to bring everything together.

"Gail Stern has been a great asset to the Historical Society of Princeton, especially regarding her continuous interest emphasizing the diversity in Princeton's history and inclusiveness of all people. Gail is just a great person. She is very fair, tries so hard, and is a wonderful representative of the Historical Society."

Nick Carnevale, who worked with Ms. Stern on the Italian-American exhibition, agrees, adding, "I have found Gail to be extremely persistent and very deliberate. She constantly examines things thoroughly and sticks with it until the job is completed. I have seen these traits not only in her work at the Historical Society, but also at the Rotary Club, where she is extremely participative.

"She has done all these things during difficult times for the Historical Society (with funding problems due to cutbacks from the state), and she has been very successful."

In fact, Ms. Stern wears many hats as Historical Society director. Responsibilities include financial work, fund-raising, meeting with groups and organizations and with the Society's board of trustees.

"The work requires a lot of different skills, and you are always using your hands, eyes, and brain," she points out. "You have to have an eye for many things. You have to manipulate things and envision how it all fits together.

Tangible and Intangible

"Ideas for exhibits come from the program committee of the board, and we all discuss it," she adds. "It's very expensive and time-consuming to mount an exhibit. Some items we have on hand, others are donated. We are always trying to get more 20th century material."

The rewards are substantial, however. Both tangible and intangible: tangible in seeing the exhibit come to life; intangible in the myriad of ways visitors are affected by what they see, and its ramifications in their lives.

"Most museum people like to see something finished," notes Ms. Stern. "So much in our lives is unfinished. We like to see a tangible result of what we are working on, and the same thing in a book, when we publish our journal."

She says she is very grateful for the support of so many who help to make the dreams of the Historical Society a reality.

"The board members and staff have helped me so much. I've learned from them, and many have become friends. I also have a mentor, Lawrence Seiver, who is now in his eighties. He has helped me in so many ways in dealing with people and in raising funds for non-profits."

The Historical Society's next exhibit, slated for spring of 2004, will be based on the "Princeton Recollector," adds Ms. Stern. "It will have great subjects and wonderful articles on Princeton from the 18th through the 20th centuries."

Important Gift

In addition, the Society was recently the beneficiary of a very important gift from the Institute for Advanced Study. Some 65 pieces of late Victorian furniture belonging to Albert Einstein when he lived at 112 Mercer Street have been given to the Society.

"This is an honor," says Ms. Stern. "It could have been given to the Smithsonian or any museum, but they wanted to keep it in Princeton. We will use it very responsibly to interpret his life. Our hope is eventually to have an Einstein room on permanent display."

When not involved in the challenges of historical exploration, Ms. Stern covers a lot of ground investigating flea markets and garage sales. "For fun and relaxation," she points out, "and I also read mysteries to relax, especially Tony Hillerman and Diane Davidson.

"I love to travel, and I have visited different parts of the world," she continues. "A favorite place is Thailand =8B it is so beautiful. Of places I haven't been, I especially want to see Greece and Scandinavia. My 14-year-old son Jonathan and I are also very excited about a cruise my brother has arranged to the Caribbean next month."

History is never very far from her mind, however, whether she is traveling or at her office in Bainbridge House.

In particular, by means of the exhibits at the Historical Society, Ms. Stern always seeks to demonstrate the importance of and need for understanding among groups and individuals. Something she has emphasized throughout her career.

"I have been trying to fight discrimination as much as possible and further tolerance," she explains. "There are always so many different factors, so many perspectives. We want to educate people and promote tolerance, and history can be such an important way to achieve this."


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