Groundbreaking PUL exhibition on Toni Morrison to open spring 2023

Written by
Princeton University Library
Nov. 11, 2021

The much-anticipated exhibition, “Sites of Memory: The Archival World of Toni Morrison,” is scheduled to open in Spring 2023, in Firestone Library’s Milberg Gallery. Conceived by Autumn Womack, Assistant Professor of African American Studies and English, the exhibition is a multi-faceted, immersive journey into the archives of Toni Morrison. Drawing upon drafts and outlines of published and unpublished writing, speeches, essays, and correspondence, the exhibition reveals previously unknown aspects of Toni Morrison’s creative life and practice. 

As visitors move through the exhibition, they will encounter the complexity of Morrison’s intellectual worlds and the very way that she transcends the categories of artist, writer, teacher, or editor. “Rather than offer either a sweeping overview of her career or an in-depth look at her best-known works,” Womack described, “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.” 

Plans are underway for the exhibition to go beyond gallery walls and into the community, demonstrating the interdisciplinary and collaborative nature of Morrison’s work. Womack and the curatorial team are working closely with University and community members to amplify “Sites of Memory” through new creative and research projects from visual artists, composers, choreographers, and playwrights, showing how Morrison’s work continues to inspire artists, students, and scholars today. One such collaboration is with McCarter Theatre. The planned project invites up to three multidisciplinary artists to campus for a series of visits to the collection, for artist talks, and for classroom visits. Throughout, they will create new work inspired by Toni Morrison’s dramatic adaptation of her short story “Recitatif,” culminating in a weekend of performances of newly commissioned works.

Other projects in the planning stage include a series of graduate and undergraduate courses,  featuring exhibition-related content; a symposium bringing together Morrison scholars and artists; and art exhibitions in partnership with Princeton University Art Museum. There are also plans to publish an accompanying catalog, co-edited by Womack and Associate Professor Kinohi Nishikawa. 

Inspiration for the title of the exhibition, Womack shared, is derived from Toni Morrison’s essay "Site of Memory," in which 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.”

“Without such incredible archives here at Princeton,” Womack said, “an in-depth exploration of Morrison’s creative process would not be possible.”

morrisonbooks

Items from the Papers of Toni Morrison, Special Collections, Princeton University Library (PUL)

Housed at Princeton University Library, the Papers of Toni Morrison include more than 50 linear feet of the Nobel laureate author’s manuscripts, drafts, and proofs for the novels “The Bluest Eye” (1970), “Sula” (1973), “Tar Baby” (1981), “Beloved” (1987), “Jazz” (1992), “Paradise” (1997), “Love” (2003), “A Mercy” (2008), “Home” (2012), and “God Help the Child” (2015). The papers also include drafts of plays and poems, speeches, editorial work, correspondence, photography, and research material.

“Rather than understanding this archive as fixed in time or institutionally bound,” Womack explained, “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.”

One important archival aspect of “Sites of Memory” that Womack emphasized is how the exhibition demonstrates the ways Morrison’s works operate as archives of Black life. “The exhibition,” Womack said, “celebrates an archive of Black life and history that was curated on its own terms, a project that has never been more urgent.”

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The exhibition is curated by Autumn Womack, Assistant Professor of African American Studies and English with curatorial contributions from Kinohi Nishikawa, Associate Professor of English and African American Studies, Gabriel Swift, Librarian for Academic Programs and Curator of American Book and Western Americana, Rene Boatman, Technical Administrative Assistant, Special Collections, and Will Noel, John T. Maltsberger III ’55 Associate University Librarian for Rare Books and Special Collections.

The accompanying catalog is funded by the Friends of the Princeton University Library.

Learn more about PUL exhibitions and the Ellen and Leonard Milberg Gallery.

Explore PUL’s digital exhibitions.

Read more about past exhibitions: Inside the Milberg Gallery news series.

Photos: (top) Sameer A. Khan/Fotobuddy; (bottom) handwritten notes and manuscripts/first edition novels from Princeton University Library's Special Collection

Media contact: Barbara Valenza, Director of Library Communications