Princeton exhibitions grapple with history in different ways

MORVen princeton

Dudley Morris’ “Morven, 1959″ is part of the “Morven Revealed: Untold Stories From New Jersey’s Most Historic Home” exhibition at The Morven Museum & Garden in Princeton

Just past Princeton University and the monument to George Washington, Nassau Street ceases to be Nassau Street. It becomes Stockton Street — named for Richard Stockton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, an early university trustee, and the patriarch of one of the most influential families in Mercer County history. The Stocktons once lived at Morven, a mansion still in view of Washington’s stony feet. This feels appropriate. George and Martha Washington were frequent visitors to Morven. In the 20th century, the mansion became the official residence of the governors of New Jersey; in the 21st it is, like many stately old houses in places that take the past seriously, a museum dedicated to its own history. A ticket affords the visitor more than a glimpse of Princeton as it was. It also grants entry to a place where the exhumation of history is ongoing.

An 1849 portrait of Robert Field Stockton (1847–1891), by Thomas Sully.

The Stocktons, we now know, were slaveowners. Richard Stockton denied independence to his servants even as he was demanding it of King George. Robert Field Stockton, a direct descendant and Morven resident, owned a sugarcane plantation in the Antebellum South that enslaved 100 men and women. Stockton was, nominally, an abolitionist — but one who characterized African Americans as rapists and murderers, and he was keen to ship them back to their place of origin. The governors who took over Morven after the Stocktons had gone were not so problematic, but they weren’t unimpeachable characters, either. In short, Morven wraps the sins of New Jersey’s past in a very pretty package. But as frank as the Museum is about the vexed history of the mansion, the Stocktons and their spiritual descendants are still the protagonists of this tale and the heavies in its ground floor galleries.

“Morven Revealed: Untold Stories From New Jersey’s Most Historic Home,” a temporary exhibit that roosts on the sunny second floor of the mansion, is, like the renovated Ballantine House in Newark, a polite but firm wrestling match with the past. It presents the mansion as a genuine domicile: not merely a staging area for state dinners and photo opportunities, but a site of cooking, cleaning, partying and goofing around. We are shown hairbrushes, straight razors, crockery, bedding, kids’ toys and other artifacts — many unearthed from the grounds by archaeologists — of the quotidian experience of the powerful and privileged. Exhibition designer Olivia de Salve Villedieu has warmed up the walls of this austere mansion with coats of pastel paint and a font that looks like it has come straight from the pages of an art book. Many of the descriptions are rendered in the friendly script of a note left on the counter by a mother to a child. We are greeted at the top of the steps by a line drawing of the Morven resident dogs. A favorite recipe for beef stew pie, printed in red letters just below the ceiling of the first gallery, reveals that Gov. Hughes’ First Lady had a heavy hand with the Worcestershire sauce.

These curatorial gestures are meant to humanize the people who have lived in Morven, and throw a little light on the experiences of the servants who were also residents of the mansion. By adding a common private dimension to public figures, “Morven Revealed” subtly argues that the distance between American luminaries and those who waited on them isn’t as great as we sometimes imagine. Yet the museum never lets us forget who the stars of the show are. The Stocktons and their successors may have had ordinary desires, but they had extraordinary power, and the residue of that power is visible in the artifacts of the lives they led. Their associations, their education and their refined tastes mark them as American royalty: maybe not as ostentatious as European princes, but comfortable with sovereignty and, in some cases, hereditary privilege.

“Hunters of Colonial Fictions,” by Denilson Baniwa.

In the vicinity of Nassau Street, this ambivalence is not uncommon. Princetonians are often torn between competing desires to critique and celebrate their forerunners. They are too educated to wave away the brutality of inequality, but also are quietly proud of their town’s continued importance and proximity to institutions of leadership. That balancing act continues at the Bainbridge House, a handsome brick building built by a Stockton in the mid-18th Century that is the temporary home of the Princeton University Art Museum while the campus facility undergoes renovation. Like Morven, Bainbridge House has a checkered past; like Morven, Bainbridge is too pretty and too significant not to be seized by historical societies and educators and used for the local sport of self-interrogation. Exhibitions at the Bainbridge House wear their political implications boldly. “Denilson Baniwa: Under the Skin of History,” a roundhouse right of a show that will hang at the Bainbridge until Sept. 1, is no exception.

Baniwa, a descendant of the Brazilian indigenous tribe of the same name, cannot be faulted for an absence of motivation. While his photographs, sculptures and drawings are lighthearted at times, he’s got a retributive streak as wide as The Amazon, and he lets it carry him through this small but ferocious exhibition. Colonization and deforestation are twin focuses of his outrage, but he is also lashing back at the way in which Brazilian bodies and Brazilian landscapes have been represented in official histories. His campaign to rectify omissions in the record has been abetted by the Princeton University Department of Anthropology — the keeper of an archive that Baniwa has examined, reinterpreted and occasionally lampooned.

Many of the best pieces in “Under the Skin of History,” which is curated by Jun Nakamura, are direct reactions to colonial illustrations and photographs that have cemented the image of Brazilian indigenous people in the popular imagination. Baniwa has recreated some of these alligator-baiting, machete-swinging, monkey-hunting scenes with jungle-themed Playmobil characters, photographed them, framed them and aimed them straight at a vitrine bearing the original troublesome artifacts. “Novus Terra Brasilis,” a floor-to-ceiling scroll in ink, is both a parody of the sort of map that once guided (or misguided) explorers in the New World and a skillful rendering in its own right. Here and elsewhere, Baniwa demonstrates a grudging respect for the artistry and ingenuity of the settlers and interlopers, even as he is determined to shatter their narrative frame.

Denilson Baniwa’s “Contatos Imediatos do Terceiro Grau.”

Sometimes the targets of his satire are obvious. Placing King Kong and Godzilla in a postcolonial context is hardly a Herculean conceptual lift. Yet when he pushes further into the steaming jungle of Western pop cultural signifiers, he retrieves some strange and illuminating artifacts. “Contatos Imediatos do Terceiro Grau” (Portuguese for “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”) fits a conical grass hut in the tractor beam of a spaceship and draws connections between a native design aesthetic based on necessity and comic book images of alien spacecraft. “Hunters of Colonial Fictions,” a print parody of a pulp movie poster, puts the tools of documentary-making in the hands of a pair of young Baniwa men. That means video cameras where we would expect to see a bow and arrow, and a boom microphone in the place of the customary spear. Denilson Baniwa is playing with our expectations, asking what we believe we see when we look at pictures of indigenous people, and challenging us to look harder.

The artist denies that this work is meant to be corrosive, insisting instead on a “right of reply” to misleading tales told by colonial storytellers. Nevertheless, in a film accompanying the exhibition, Baniwa concedes that he views himself as a saboteur infiltrating a master narrative, finding blank spaces, and inserting artifacts of his own invention. It is tempting to wonder what the members of the Princeton University Department of History might say about this creative archival approach by the Departments of Art and Anthropology. Yet encouraging a smart provocateur to play around with the facts in the name of social justice, and trusting an educated audience to get it … that’s the American liberal project at its most artful and magnanimous. No polluter has actually carved a parrot-shaped swath of devastation into The Amazon, but if you are up on your environmental history, you will recognize Baniwa’s satellite fake for a representation of a real, and tragic, phenomenon.

Clifford Prince King’s “Poster Boys.”

The commitment to providing space for the marginalized continues at nearby Art on Hulfish, another gallery run by The Princeton University Art Museum. “Don’t we touch each other just to prove we are still here?,” a photography exhibit, contains a pair of tender shots of queer African American men sharing moments of wholesome intimacy: braiding each other’s hair, laying barefoot in blue jeans on a mattress under a portrait of The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

A few blocks away, The Arts Council of Princeton recently gifted its foyer to Valerie Huhn, an audacious installation artist whose assemblies of colorful fingerprints on punched-out acetate prompt tough questions about police surveillance, incarceration and the nature of identity.

“Making Do,” the show that just closed at the Arts Council’s Taplin Gallery, foregrounded its environmental anxiety and worry about waste with sculptures composed of disused objects; Dot Paolo’s “Narratives From My Toy Box,” which opened on June 1, puts old figurines in positions evocative enough to race the plastic heartbeats of Baniwa’s Playmobil characters.

These shows aren’t univocal. Each one feels driven forward by a different spur. But they all bear the searing mark of actual tragic happenstance. Each curator assumes a viewer erudite enough to catch references, make conceptual connections, and place what she is seeing in the context of global history. Show by show and gallery after gallery, a college town with a compromised past wonders how it can shake off the ghosts and contribute to an egalitarian present. That’s Princeton — a place both grand and guilty. Much like the rest of America.

“Morven Revealed: Untold Stories From New Jersey’s Most Historic Home” will be on display at Morven Museum & Garden in Princeton through March 2; visit

The Princeton University Art Museum will present “Don’t we touch each other just to prove we are still here?” at Art on Hulfish through Aug. 4, and “Denilson Baniwa: Under the Skin of History” at the Art@Bainbridge gallery through Sept. 1. Visit

“Dot Paolo: Narratives From My Toy Box” will be at The Arts Council of Princeton through June 29; visit


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