In the Trailblazers Beyond the Tenure Track series, current Princeton graduate students interview graduate alumni pursuing a range of careers beyond the tenure track. Collectively, these stories help graduate students develop a vision of the journey ahead by exploring the experiences of trailblazers who have gone before them.
My current role is Director and CEO of the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, which is a unique art museum focused on Asia. The museum simultaneously explores connections through time and geographical regions, which helps to turn the museum into a globally open platform. I've been in this role for 13 years.
I went to Princeton in 1990 for my Ph.D. in early Chinese Art and Archaeology. The site that I worked on, Sanxingdui, is a small village in southwestern China, in the Sichuan Basin. That’s truly a lost civilization because for a long time scholars never suspected that part of China was highly developed during the early Bronze Age, which was from about 1500 BC to about 1000 BC. Compared to other regions, such as central China, it was considered a cultural backwater.
Traditionally, when we think of central Chinese artifacts, we think of vessels, bowls, beakers, and so forth. Yet, in 1986, a revolutionary discovery was made in Sanxingdui. We found images that we never heard of or seen before, as well as significant sculptures. Not only were there many bronze and golden materials, but they were different because they took on figurative forms. The discovery was sensational - truly revolutionary.
Laying the groundwork
The type of art history taught at Princeton is, in my opinion, very healthily focused on objects. Princeton has an outstanding museum associated with the Art and Archeology department. Engaging with the museum enabled Ph.D. students like myself to ground our research in actual artifacts and not just rely on theory. The combination of rigorous methodological training, close attention to theory, and extensive hands-on experience with the objects in the museum was truly advantageous.
I started my unique museum career nearly 40 years ago in 1983 in my hometown’s Shanghai Museum. In a sense, I have always been working in museums.
The museum really exists in the interface between academia and the general public. Everything we do is based on the best scholarship and often the curators’ job is to translate that scholarship into the most engaging, relevant, and appealing form for the general public. This translation carries the function of the museum beyond that of the research institute. It is an institution with a special emphasis on serving the public.
I realized that the museum was crucial to me, as I conceived of it as a hub of humanity. All kinds of people from all walks of life come to the museum, which aims to serve everyone throughout the economic ladder. Very few other organizations merit the title “hub of humanity.”
However, initially I debated with myself whether or not to pursue museum work because I have a strong affinity for academic research. Academic work is specialized since academia enables you to develop deep scholarship in a particular area, which is amazing. I do my best to maintain this attitude, even in the museum world. Even though I have not been able to give it one hundred percent of my time, I know that I have the tenacity and the curiosity to continue as a research scholar.
Life beyond academia
While curating a show, not every subject of that exhibition can be your field of study. The most advanced research may not be at hand, so it's important that you partner with academic specialists to gain the necessary insights.
On the other hand, for those in academia, researching deeper sometimes means losing the breadth of the big picture. It is important to maintain broad knowledge and it is also important to learn how to communicate one’s research to the general public. To me, any deep understanding of a subject can be–and should be–presented in clear, jargon-free language.
I think the similarity between academia and jobs beyond academia is always curiosity, passion, and tenacity. You must have all three to be successful.
Advice for graduate students
For graduate students who are working on their dissertation my advice is to write in the clearest, most understandable language possible. The other day, I was talking to a colleague in another organization. She was very excited to tell me about the metaverse. Then, I asked her to explain to me what the metaverse really is. What does it mean in transforming the museum’s mode of creation and visitor’s experience? She paused and was unsure how to proceed. That is a classic problem.
For graduate students who are thinking about their post-Ph.D. life, my advice is to ask yourself, “In what am I most interested?” and “What is my particular curiosity and strength?” If you feel like you are someone who really wants to pursue any topic to the very depths of the human imagination, you are made for academia. You might have to research for long hours and you might often feel lonely, but if it makes you happy and you have the tenacity, go for it.
On the other hand, if you think, “My interest is to interact with people, to spread knowledge, to stimulate other people's curiosity, and to use storytelling to convey this deeply researched knowledge to them”, then you are made for non-academic work. Of course, both academic and non-academic work are equally valuable. They are just different forms of our common effort to make our life better.
What is important is that we all make a change for our own life and for the common life of humanity. Ask yourself, “What change do I want to make in my life and for the world? What's the best way for me to make that change?”