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A new museum at Princeton University designed as ‘a campus within a campus’

The building would double the size of the existing museum.

October 15, 2020 |

The design for a new art museum on the main campus of Princeton University would open up the building, and display its permanent collection in a unique way. Image: Adjaye Associates

One of the jewels in New Jersey’s cultural crown is Princeton University’s Art Museum, which was established in 1882, and whose present collection exceeds 110,000 objects. The museum is known for its Greek and Roman antiquities and Western European paintings. It also has a noteworthy collection of Asian art, as well as an extensive photography array.

But like most other institutions, Princeton’s museum only has enough space to exhibit a tiny fraction of its collection. Last month, the Art Museum unveiled the designs for a new 144,000-sf museum that would double the size of the existing building. James Steward, the museum’s director, estimates that the percentage of objects on view from permanent collections would triple to 6% in the new building, from 2% in the existing museum. And elements of visible storage will be featured throughout the new building.

Demolition of the existing museum—which is currently closed due to the coronavirus pandemic—is expected to begin in the middle of next year, with the goal of reopening in the new museum by late 2024.


Architect Sir David Adjaye’s three-story design breaks down the mass of the museum by creating nine interlocking cubes that relate to the scale of the university structures around it. (The current museum is located in the middle of the university’s wooded main campus.) Adjaye Associates collaborated on the museum’s design with executive architect Cooper Robertson.

There will be six ground-floor entrances in the new building (as opposed to one in the existing museum), making what Adjaye calls “a museum in the round.” The design also creates two enclosed “art walks” running north-south and east-west through the building’s ground floor.

A singular “lens” moment at the complex’s northeast corner creates an intimate viewing and reading room, affords views onto the campus, and shapes a display opportunity for unique works from the collections. Image: Adjaye Associates


Each of the museum’s seven pavilions will include intimate spaces made from bronze and glass. All of the galleries will be on the second floor, a move that’s intended to smudge the lines that traditionally demarcate art by geography and historical period.


The double-height Grand Hall sits at the heart of the Museum complex and will function as a lecture hall and performance space that will host many of the Museum’s larger events. Image: Adjaye Associates


The design also includes outdoor terraces and spaces for performance and events that can accommodate anywhere from 200 to 2,000 people. These spaces include a hall for lectures, performances, and events; classrooms, two labs and a rooftop café. The design also shapes a new home for the University’s Department of Art & Archaeology, while retaining Marquand Library. Together, the three units would create a campus within a campus, and will continue to function as a dynamic center for research and teaching.

“I want the building to feel that it’s not just a hall of sacred objects but as … a common hall, so students can just go there if they feel like it and want to work close to those objects,” says Adjaye, whose firm was selected for this project in 2018. “If they have a compelling urge to see an incredible print or a sculpture or a delicate ceramic or bronze piece, it becomes a resource.”

The new museum will be built on the site of the older building, and be home to the university's Art & Archeology department. Image; Princeton University Art Museum


Steward, the museum’s director, told the Art Newspaper that 98% of the funds for the construction have been raised. He declined to disclose the construction cost.

Adjaye Associates has several prominent museum projects under its belt. It was one of several architect firms involved in the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC. The firm also designed the Studio Museum that’s under construction in Harlem in New York, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver, and the Ruby City art center in San Antonio.

Adjaye also served as a visiting professor at Princeton’s School of Architecture from 2008 to 2010.

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