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Art and Archaeology

Sarah A. Kennel ’92

Curator of Photographs, National Gallery of Art

When I was four years old, my father, a physicist, accepted a one-year sabbatical appointment in Paris. Our family of four packed up and moved to the City of Light. In nearly every way, Paris was a radical change from our suburban Los Angeles lifestyle. Gone were the pink stucco houses with kidney-shaped swimming pools, the looping concrete arteries snaking through scrub and chaparral, and the relentlessly perfect weather. Paris, with its elegantly appointed parks, magnificent Beaux-Arts buildings, clattering metro trains, and perennially damp, medieval churches, was a revelation to me. 

Instead of living in what Dorothy Parker once called “72 suburbs in search of a city,” I was now in the midst of a dense urban network that was impregnated with history. Even my four-year-old self was dazzled by the cultural riches of Paris and its surroundings. Our weekends included visits to see the immense stained glass windows in the cathedral of Chartres and the ornate Renaissance sculptural decorations of the chateau at Fontainebleau. We also visited the city’s great museums, including the Louvre and the Jeu de Paume. Some of my earliest memories are of sitting atop my father’s shoulders so that I could peer at paintings by Manet, Degas, and Picasso. 

Combining memories and intellectual passions

We returned to the United States the following year, and I resumed my typical Southern Californian childhood, but the seeds planted in that year abroad would sprout when I arrived at Princeton and took my first art history class, focused on 19th- and 20th-century art. Suddenly I was able to construct an intellectual framework for the fascinating visual objects and architecture that I loved as a child. Art history—the study of objects in their historical context—gave form and meaning to what I had experienced at a younger age as simply magical and exotic. Many other subjects at Princeton tempted me—history, literature, and languages, especially. But I realized quickly that art history was the conduit through which I could connect all of these different disciplines. 

It did so not primarily through texts, but rather through the object—a tangibility that was brought home in my “Greek Art: From Myth to Man” class where Professor William Childs passed around a small and authentic early Classical sculpted figure. Holding the petite sculpture in my (nervous) hands, I was struck by how this admittedly modest object was connected to an immense range of human practices and historical developments, including transformations in religion, the rise of Athenian democracy, encounters with the Persian Empire, and so forth. But in addition to the sense of intellectual excitement our discussions of the sculpture generated, I was immensely gratified and thrilled by how cool it was to actually handle a work of art—an opportunity some students never have. 

Curating art and excitement

I soon committed to majoring in art history and took a wide range of classes before eventually focusing my senior thesis on images of women workers in 19th-century French art, a topic that allowed me to explore a wide range of images and incorporate research from a number of disciplines, including literature and history. The strength of the humanities at Princeton, and especially the range and depth of the art history program, not only gave me the necessary foundation for successfully writing an undergraduate thesis, but prepared me for graduate school and ultimately a career in the museum world. I am now a curator of photographs at the National Gallery of Art, where I am organizing an exhibition devoted to the 19th-century French photographer Charles Marville—an undertaking that brings me back to Paris on a semiregular basis and reminds me of what sparked my love of art so many years ago. 

Majoring in art history means subjecting oneself to a fair amount of teasing from the world at large. No one asks a biology or political science major “what are you going to do with that degree?” but art history majors contend with a widespread assumption that it is a “soft” discipline, appropriate only for dilettantes and debutantes. Yet my profession is an immensely rewarding one that combines intellectual rigor with a sense of public mission. It is also a job that demands and rewards a collaborative spirit. 

While the mission of a curator is first and foremost the care, study, and display of art, my goal in installing works of art or putting together exhibitions is to generate the same kind of interest and excitement among the public that I experienced both as a young child and as a Princeton student first learning to connect objects with history and culture. To that end, I’m immensely grateful that both my parents and Princeton gave me the freedom and foundation to explore my intellectual passions without regard for their instrumentality in securing a conventional career.