Princeton University Library announced plans for an exhibition honoring the life and work of Toni Morrison that is set to unveil in spring 2023.
Titled “Sites of Memory: The Archival World of Toni Morrison,” the library envisions the exhibition as a “multi-faceted, immersive journey” through Morrison’s “drafts and outlines of published and unpublished writing, speeches, essays, and correspondence,” according to the library statement.
“Rather than offer either a sweeping overview of her career or an in-depth look at her best-known works,” Assistant Professor of African American Studies and English Autumn Womack said in the library statement, “this exhibit follows the route mapped by the collection itself as it illuminates previously unknown aspects of Morrison’s life and practice, and reveals new ways of understanding seemingly familiar texts and events.”
Womack declined an interview for this piece. The other curators deferred The Daily Princetonian to the library spokesperson, who referred the paper to the announcement.
In the view of Chair of the English Department Simon Gikandi, the exhibition is “groundbreaking.” It will mark the first time “we have a panoramic view of the many sides of Morrison as a writer, an artist, and a book editor who almost single handedly chaperoned the canon of Black letters that emerged in the post-civil rights period,” he wrote to the ‘Prince.’
Morrison, who came to the University as Robert F. Goheen Professor in the Humanities in 1989 and became the first Black woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature just four years later, is one of the most celebrated authors of the 20th century. She died on Aug. 5, 2019 at the age of 88.
In November 2019, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution recognizing Morrison as a “writer of the stature of other great literary figures of the United States.” Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, one of the two legislators who proposed the resolution, said in a statement at the time that “Toni Morrison’s body of work changed America.”
At Princeton, she was also an active professor, teaching undergraduate courses and advising graduate students. Morrison once said that “teaching is the second-best thing to writing for me.”
The vision for the exhibition at Princeton, as crafted by a curatorial team led by Womack, is intended to mirror the “interdisciplinary and collaborative nature of Morrison’s work,” the statement said. The team is working with community members to bring “Sites of Memory” outside the library walls through collaboration with visual artists, composers, choreographers, and playwrights.
In particular, the exhibition plans to work with the McCarter Theater on a project that will invite three multidisciplinary artists to campus for talks and visits to classes. While on the campus, the artists “will create new work inspired by Toni Morrison’s dramatic adaptation of her short story ‘Recitatif,’” and culminate in a weekend of performances for the new work.
A series of undergraduate and graduate courses that would work hand-in-hand with the exhibition is also in the “planning stage,” according to the announcement, along with a catalog curated by Womack and Associate Professor of English Kinohi Nishikawa.
“This exhibition is an important tribute to Toni Morrison, one of the greatest writers of the modern period and an acknowledgment of the intimate connection between her work and the complexity of Black American life in relation to questions of slavery and its afterlife and the fragile work of memory,” Gikandi told the ‘Prince.’
The exhibition’s name derives from Morrison’s essay “Site of Memory.” In her piece, Morrison writes, “On the basis of some information and a little bit of guesswork you journey to a site to see what remains were left behind and to reconstruct the world that these remains imply.”
For students of literature and culture, Gikandi said he believes the exhibition will have an important, three-pronged educational value.
“First, it will highlight the nature of archives as depositories that shape how we read and interpret texts and the conditions in which writing takes place,” he wrote. “Secondly, it will call attention to the materiality of the book as an object. Third, it will provide students of Morrison’s place in history — she will be there in front of us, an icon in the library and by extension the house of culture.”
According to the library announcement, the University’s library currently houses more than 50 linear feet of Morrison’s manuscripts, draft, and proofs for the novels “The Bluest Eye,” “Sula,” “Tar Baby,” “Beloved,” “Jazz,” “Paradise,” “Love,” “A Mercy,” “Home,” and “God Help the Child.” Morrison’s archives additionally include drafts of plays and poems, speeches, letters, and photography, the announcement explained.
“Rather than understanding this archive as fixed in time or institutionally bound,” Womack said in the statement, “the exhibition, like Morrison, understands the archive to be flexible, contingent, ephemeral, and always open for negotiation. That is, as a site of active and collaborative memory-making.”
Marie-Rose Sheinerman is a senior writer who has reported on COVID-19 policy, faculty controversy, sexual harassment allegations, major donors, campus protests, and more. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @rosesheinerman. She previously served as an editor of news and features and now assists with content strategy.