If, after entering the museum’s exhibit space, you go to the left and take the stairs down to the lower-level gallery, you may come across an extraordinary stele with a small sign standing on its flat, weathered top. The sign politely requests that visitors do not touch the stele, as it is very old and very rare and imbued with vast anthropological and cultural significance.
The stele itself is magnificent, but the sign—not that it is an unusually nice sign or anything—highlights my favorite thing about our art museum here at Princeton: access. Access in the literal sense of being able to look at medieval sculptures, ancient mosaics, and impressionist watercolors just a ten minute walk away from my dorm, but also access in the sense of having interactions with the artwork in a way that one can’t online or even at many museums.
With fine art, it can be difficult to remember that someone made that painting, or sculpture, or pottery, etc. For me, fine art can often feel remote: beautiful, but out of reach. But putting an artwork out in the open gives museum visitors a point of access to the whole collection. When you can get close enough to an oil painting to see the individual brushstrokes or close enough to a stele to see the grooves of a chisel, the humanity of the artist is so clear and so vital. For many works, we don’t know anything about the artist(s) except for that they lived. Brushing up against the quiet details of creation is a profound reminder of that life. It is, for me, one of the reasons that visual art is such a persistent and powerful aspect of the human experience.