Undergraduate Student Blog, Speaking of Princeton

Undergraduate Student Blog

Author: Rachel Newman ’16

Paramus, New Jersey • Psychology View Profile

Life at the Museum: Please touch

Many of you may recall my mentioning that I serve as a student tour guide at the Princeton University Art Museum. I may not have mentioned, though, that I have zero art history background outside of the student tour guide training course.

This course gives a general background to the museum. It was from this course that I learned how old the museum is (opened 1882), how many pieces it houses (more than 72,000, not all on display at once), and the collections it is most known for (photography and Asian calligraphy).

In addition to these tidbits about museum history, all of the guides were given a binder with extensive information about objects in the museum intended for a student-run tour. One such object, an Olmec figurine entitled “Kneeling lord with incised toad on his head”  enchanted me. I loved its intricacy, especially in spite of the limited tools available to its crafters (metal tools didn’t exist); I loved its personality, with the face seeming to stare right through you. It is rumored that the eye sockets once held semiprecious stones... creepy. But most of all, I loved its mystery. The Olmec culture, an enigmatic pre-Mayan civilization (1200-400 B.C.), is my favorite thing to talk about on tours. Since so little is known definitively, I can engage the tour group in a dialogue as to what they think may be the meaning behind the object.

Kneeling lord with incised toad on his head
Kneeling lord with incised toad on his head

Luckily, this year I noticed a course offered in Olmec art and decided to use my fascination with my favorite Kneeling Lord as the window through which to enter the world of art history. I quickly and excitedly enrolled. 

The class has only seven students and is run by the curator of the Ancient Americas gallery in the museum. Cool! I thought this would be the most exciting part, but on the first day of classes, the professor told us that he hoped to make the class time more “hands on."  He then proceeded to hand out gloves and place several really, really old artifacts on the table, artifacts we were invited to touch and hold.

Carefully. 

I am now working on a project researching a specific object and am invited to make an appointment with museum staff at any point to take a closer look at the object itself, alongside my research in the art library, which, by the way, is in the same building as the museum. My object is called "Vessel in the form of an opossum eating a squash" and kind of looks like a pig with a baby bottle if you look at it at the right angle, or maybe that's just me.

Vessel in the form of an opossum eating a squash
Vessel in the form of an opossum eating a squash

I feel like some kind of detective uncovering mysteries of the past. Or maybe a better way to put it is that I feel like a really clean archaeologist, handling ancient artifacts from the comfort of my seminar room as though I just discovered them myself. And the best part is I'm no longer terrified of breaking everything that I touch. I feel like a true art historian.