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Vol. LXIV, No. 29
Wednesday, July 21, 2010
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Pomp and Circumstance In a “Jewel Box”: History of Nassau Hall on View and in Print

Ellen Gilbert

A visitor’s experience of the new Nassau Hall exhibit “Inner Sanctum: Memory and Meaning in Princeton’s Faculty Room at Nassau Hall,” may be enriched (or interrupted, according to one’s taste) by the orientations for prospective Princeton University students that take place there daily at 10 a.m. and 2:15 p.m., or by the voices of passing student tour guides.

While the exhibit in the high-ceilinged Faculty Room bespeaks a sense of grandeur with its 33 portraits of Princeton’s founders, presidents, and distinguished alumni hanging from the oak-paneled walls, hearing a young guide explain that “this is originally the home of everything here” makes it all seem a little more earth-bound. A guard dimming the lights following an orientation as he thoughtfully explains that this how the exhibit is meant to be viewed adds to the reality check.

The intent of the exhibit is “to showcase the room as the center of the University’s history, while also reflecting American society’s evolution.” Princeton University Art Museum Associate Curator of American art Karl Kusserow, and curator of “Inner Sanctum,” said this is the first time the museum has organized a temporary exhibition in another space on campus. “But the reason it’s not in the museum is really the whole point of the exhibition, which is to interpret not a group of discrete objects, but rather an entire spatial environment. The room itself is the theme.” Mr. Kusserow compared the experience of the room to “stepping into a jewel box.”

Although the exhibit ends on October 30, the images and explanations in it are preserved in a recently published Princeton University Press volume of the same name, edited by Mr. Kusserow, with an introduction by President Shirley Tilghman, and essays by Toni Morrison, Sean Wilentz, Eddie S. Glaude Jr., and Mr. Kusserow. A closing poem by Paul Muldoon describes “this Holiest of Holies where McCosh and MacLean/Preside over us.”

“I hope visitors will come to appreciate not only how these portraits in the room recapitulate Princeton’s history by representing its founders and leaders and some of its great alumni, but also how the changing function of the space itself rehearses the institutional narrative,” said Mr. Kusserow, who will also be teaching a freshman seminar in the fall titled “Charged Space: Context and Setting in the Production and Interpretation of Art and Literature” that uses the “Inner Sanctum” exhibition as a springboard for examining the power of space as art.

“Those intertwined histories — the portraits and the space — not only tell the story of Princeton, but they also mirror larger social and cultural changes in America’s history,” Mr. Kusserow said. The juxtaposition of portraits of figures like the solemn, be-wigged Ebenezer Pemberton (a trustee from 1746 to 1754) and the dour-looking Woodrow Wilson (class of 1879 and University President from 1902 through 1910), makes for some interesting viewing.

“The prevailing note today is of sturdiness and tranquility,” writes Mr. Wilentz in his essay. “No longer the largest structure in town, dwarfed by the towers of Gothic dormitories and postwar science labs, Nassau Hall is, on close inspection, far more than an administrative building: it is a battle scarred monument to the University — and the nation’s — continuities and changes.”

Or, as the tour guide explaining “the home of everything” observed,” some “cool things happened here.”

“Inner Sanctum” is on view from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Tuesdays through Saturdays, and 1 to 5 p.m. on Sundays. The exhibition was funded by the class of 1970 in celebration of its 40th reunion. Copies of the book are on view at the exhibit, and available for sale in the Art Museum’s gift shop.

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