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Department: Art and Archaeology

Powers Art and Archaeology

Jessica Davis Powers ’97

Curator, San Antonio Museum of Art

Immersing myself in the ancient world

As a child, I was fascinated by ancient Greece and Rome. By the time I reached high school, however, that interest had waned, and when I came to Princeton I was actually thinking about majoring in physics. During my first year, I took an elective on Greek and Roman literature in translation and visited the University’s art museum to see an exhibition of Greek vases related to the Panathenaic festival at Athens. Over the next summer I changed my plans and decided to major in the art and archaeology department. I didn’t have a clear vision of what kind of career I would pursue, so I chose to major in a subject I found interesting and see where it led.

I was one of few concentrators in the department’s classical archaeology program, which allowed me to take classes in ancient history and Latin in addition to art history. My senior thesis on mythological paintings in Pompeii ignited an interest in how the ancient Romans lived in and decorated their own homes—a topic on which I continue to publish.

A career emerges

After graduating, I was lucky to be hired as an intern in Princeton’s art museum. My actual work was mundane—data entry and filing—but the staff was wonderful in exposing me to the different kinds of work that go on in a museum. I was also able to maintain contacts with faculty members who encouraged me in pursuing a career in this field. Convinced that I wanted a career in museum work, I went on to complete a Ph.D. in classical art and archaeology at the University of Michigan.

Since September 2006 I have been the associate curator of western antiquities at the San Antonio Museum of Art. I am responsible for a collection of about 3,000 works of art representing the ancient civilizations of Egypt, Greece, Rome, and the Near East. My first major project involves reinstalling our galleries of Greek and Roman art. I love that my job is never boring: on any given day I may be researching objects in our collection, discussing plans with our exhibition designer, or looking at the collection with a group of university students.

Lessons learned at Princeton

An emphasis on close visual inspection of works of art was a constant theme through all of my art history classes at Princeton. I vividly remember several assignments that required placing an “unknown” work in its cultural context through a detailed analysis of its formal elements and subject matter. I came to relish these puzzles, and the careful observation skills I developed from them serve me every day as I examine my collection and plan the most effective way to display it. It’s even more satisfying to be able to point out to visitors aspects of a work of art that they might not have noticed and to watch their fascination at learning something new about the ancient world.

More broadly, the critical thinking and writing skills I honed while preparing art history papers are essential to my work as a curator. The ability to convey enthusiasm for works of art to a variety of audiences, from business executives to academic colleagues to tourists, is essential for success in the museum world.