When you reach the entrance of the Art Museum, turn to the front desk, inside the gift shop, and ask the attendant for a key to a locker. Store your backpack — you can’t bring it into the museum — and proceed inside. Walk past the contemporary art in the entrance and up the half flight of stairs. Ignore, for now, Jacques Louis David’s The Death of Socrates on your right, and pay no attention to the Monets, Manets, and Cezannes on the left. Keep walking past the American gallery and turn left at the Warhols. It’s hard to miss: Tucked inside the Princeton University Art Museum is a room that displays the best of nature’s beauty to match the most brilliant and beautiful of human creations.
The space is designed as a spot for tired museumgoers to rest their feet. Aside from the soft, black leather couches, the main feature of the room is the floor-to-ceiling window, which looks out onto the soaring trees behind Prospect Garden. From the outside, in the path between these trees, the room is barely noticeable. But inside, the whole world opens in front of you.
When I first happened upon this room in my freshman year, I felt as though I had discovered Princeton’s best-kept secret, especially when I realized I could make the couches my own work space. Instead of roaming the library stacks, I could walk around the museum collections as I worked through my essays, bouncing ideas off Picasso and Lichtenstein as I wandered. And as I sat in the corner room, I could watch museum visitors take in the beauty of the unexpected view. On occasion, they would engage me in conversation. Once, when I was a sophomore, I entertained a entire class of ninth-graders, answering their questions about Princeton and college life. A few weeks later, a discussion with two elderly ladies — “What do you want to do with a degree in history?” they asked — ended with a dinner invitation.
As I was doing my course reading the other day, I stopped to watch a mother and father walk in with their two young children. The youngest, a boy of maybe 3 or 4, climbed onto the black leather couch and looked out the window. He turned to his mother and asked, “Are we in the jungle?” Not quite, I thought, but isn’t it beautiful?
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