Memory and the Work of Art

What does history look like? In school, we learn to conceive of time in a linear fashion, using dates as coordinates to locate events and meaning in the past. “Cartographies of Time,” an exhibition at the Princeton University Art Museum, explores the varied ways we have measured and mapped time visually. Timelines are relatively new, as it turns out. Francesco Bianchini, a 17th-century Italian philosopher and scientist, thought objects were preferable to dates; he saw chronology as a sort of cabinet of curiosities. Emma Willard created “The Temple of Time,” a drawing of an ancient Greek temple in which the base of each column is a century and notables from that century are listed along the shaft. This device helped the girls at her school memorize historical information by organizing those details in a three-dimensional architectural space.

The history of civilization, drawn to resemble several rivers flowing into a delta and then separating out again. (Friedrich Strass, Strom der Zeiten (Stream of Time), 1804. Cotsen Children's Library, Princeton University Library.)

If this show turns time, or at least our spatial understanding of it, on its head, a related exhibition “The Life and Death of Buildings,” explores how the arts can shape our collective memory of the past. This collection of photographs queries, again, what history looks like. Each photograph represents a single moment in the lifecycle of a building, offering the viewer a way to orient themselves in time. In one poignant scene, a photograph shows a group of women looking a little lost on a Manhattan street corner – a neighborhood building had been torn down overnight, altering the landscape of their daily life dramatically. Buildings can seem like permanent fixtures in the landscape, but these immovable edifices are also subject to the shifting winds of history.

Both exhibitions are part of “Memory and the Work of Art,” a yearlong collaborative effort from the Princeton University Art Museum and a slate of university and community partners, on the 10th anniversary of the attacks of September 11, 2001. At the heart of the project is a lecture seriesMaya Lin, among other distinguished speakers, is coming to campus to help explore the role of the arts in deciphering loss. The two shows will likely inform much of the conversation.

There are few direct references to 9/11 – the exhibitions, at least, are more of an oblique treatment of the relationship between time, memory, and loss. For me, this made piece about the death of buildings all the more powerful. Here, we are encouraged to consider the meaning we ascribe backwards into the past. Do the twin towers, in a photograph taken in the 1970s, look vulnerable?

Memory is a funny thing.  It can play tricks on you – shift your perspective over time, soften one emotion and amplify another. And because memory shapes our understanding of the past, history is not static. In this season of remembrance, I find the words of curator Joel Smith especially important: “[History] is an ever-evolving narrative about what is gained and what is lost in the lives of civilizations.”

Memory and the Work of Art,” A Princeton Community Collaboration

Cartographies of Time,” through September 18, 2011.
The Life and Death of Buildings,” through November 6, 2011.
At the Princeton University Art Museum
Princeton, NJ 08542