Making History Visible – Morgan Steelman ’20

Some of the greatest learning experiences occur outside of the classroom. One such experience for me was participating in the Making History Visible Tour at the Princeton University Art Museum. Led by a small number of students from the Student Advisory Board who were also trained art museum student tour guides, the tour allowed me to take a deeper dive into the art museum’s special exhibition, featuring works by the African American artist, Titus Kaphar.

Our first stop on the tour was the lawn of the Maclean House where we observed Kaphar’s sculpture, Impressions of Liberty. The large-scale work presents intertwined portraits of former University President, Reverend Samuel Finley, and the individuals he held as slaves at his Maclean House residence. The sculpture is comprised of a composite bust in negative relief of Finley, that Kaphar coated in graphite and encased in sycamore wood to echo the campus’s “liberty trees” nearby. Framed against this hollow bust form are layered photographs, etched in glass, of an African American man, woman, and child to represent the slaves that Finley held on Princeton’s campus.

Today, historical sculptures are often entangled with political conflict and regret, which has inspired a rush to topple many sculptures in the United States. But these feelings of remorse have also inspired debate about the different ways in which art can confront the legacy of slavery and discrimination, especially at Princeton. Kaphar’s work does not attempt to erase history, but instead, forces viewers, including myself, to contend with competing images of the past and question who is remembered and who is invisible in our account of Princeton’s history.

Only a couple years ago, Princeton’s Black Justice League demanded that we have a more honest conversation about the history of slavery and prejudice at Princeton. At the Princeton Univeristy Art Museum, Kaphar’s work sparked this conversation, and the Making History Tour facilitated it. At the end of our journey through the exhibit, we gathered in the art museum to reflect on what we had just seen and share our diverse interpretations of Kaphar’s sculpture. To me, his work represents not only a complex history, but also a necessary dialog between Princeton’s physical campus, Princeton’s art, and the Princeton’s community. This is what I think art at Princeton is all about—provoking and engaging conversation.