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Collection Overview

Griffin, Gillett G. (Gillett Good), 1928-2016
Gillett G. Griffin Papers
Princeton University Archives
Permanent URL:
36 boxes
Storage Note:
ReCAP (scarcpph): Box 1-36


Gillett Good Griffin, a curator of Pre-Columbian collections at the Princeton University Art Museum from 1967 to 2005, spurred dynamic growth in the museum's collections of art of the ancient Americas. The Gillett G. Griffin Papers reflect Griffin's personal life and relationships as well as his professional work and his donation of objects to the Princeton University Art Museum.

Collection Description & Creator Information


The Gillett G. Griffin Papers reflect Griffin's personal life and relationships as well as his professional work and his donation of objects to the Princeton University Art Museum. The papers span Griffin's lifetime, and the bulk is composed of correspondence. The papers document some of Griffin's childhood artwork and schoolwork, early correspondence with family, friends, and mentors, coursework at the Yale School of Fine Arts, and Griffin's mid-century book designs. The collection contains generous material from the period when Griffin was Curator of Graphic Arts in Firestone Library, from 1952 to 1966. The papers also reflect the 38 years Griffin spent as Curator of Pre-Columbian and Primitive Art (so called in 1967) at the Princeton University Art Museum (1967-2005). Further, the papers document his travels--particularly early trips to Mexico and organized tours from the late 1960s through the 1990s--and reflect Griffin's teaching activities at Princeton between the 1970s and 2000s. Artwork represented in the papers is primarily composed of later, small-format sketches (ink on paper), including those Griffin labeled "erotic."

Personal and professional material is commingled in the collection, particularly in the correspondence series.

Further description of each series appears under each series heading.


The papers are organized into five series:

Collection Creator Biography:


Gillett Good Griffin, a curator of Pre-Columbian collections at the Princeton University Art Museum from 1967 to 2005, spurred dynamic growth in the museum's collections of art of the ancient Americas. Griffin was also Curator of Graphic Arts in Special Collections at the Princeton University Library from 1952 to 1966.

Gillett Griffin was a lifelong collector as well as an artist, book designer, teacher and a presence in the field of Pre-Columbian art. Over the years, he donated much of his own collection of ancient Olmec and Maya art to the Princeton University Art Museum, as well as working with other donors and museum directors to develop the Pre-Columbian collections. Griffin drew attention to the ancient art of the Americas by organizing exhibitions and conferences, teaching undergraduates, and leading archaeological tours.

Gillett Good Griffin was born in Brooklyn in 1928, and moved soon thereafter to Greenwich, Connecticut. Griffin attended Greenwich Country Day School and, from 1942 to 1947, boarded at Deerfield Academy, where he first began collecting early New England children's books. He eventually donated his collection of early American children's books to the Pierpont Morgan Library.

Griffin went from Deerfield to the Yale School of Fine Arts, where he worked under Alvin Eisenman and earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Graphic Arts, in 1951. That year, Griffin wrote, illustrated and hand-printed 80 copies of a children's book, A Mouse's Tale, recognized as one of the 50 best-designed books of the year by the American Institute of Graphic Arts. An edition from Abelard Press came out the following year.

In 1952, at age 24, Griffin succeeded Elmer Adler as the Curator of Graphic Arts at Princeton University. With a small acquisitions budget, Griffin collected on behalf of the library. During his tenure in Graphic Arts, he also taught noncredit courses on bookmaking, printing and book history, inviting the university community to work with presses and type in the library's basement.

Griffin met Albert Einstein in 1953 through his friend and fellow librarian Johanna Fantova. Griffin was a sometime visitor to Einstein's home between 1953 and 1955.

In 1957, Griffin went on leave to design books for the Princeton University Press. He returned to Graphic Arts at the Library and was Curator until 1966. During the 1960s, Griffin advocated for the establishment of a creative arts program for Princeton undergraduates.

Griffin had begun to collect Pre-Columbian art while studying at Yale, and in the early 1960s he first traveled to Mexico. Griffin spent the year 1966-1967 in Mexico, helping to discover ancient Olmec paintings in a cave in central Guerrero. Griffin returned to Princeton in 1967, assuming the part-time faculty position of Curator of Pre-Columbian and Primitive Art, as the position was initially called, at the Princeton University Art Museum. He held the position for 38 years, retiring in 2005. Griffin worked with museum directors Patrick Joseph Kelleher, Peter Bunnell, Allen Rosenbaum and Susan Taylor.

In subsequent travels to Mexico and Guatemala, Griffin helped to map the Olmec site of Chalcatzingo (1968-1970), and to find the "lost" Temple B at Rio Bec while working on a television documentary in 1973. He also led archaeological tours for the Friends of the Princeton Art Museum and other organizations, and participated in a series of roundtables in Palenque between 1974 and 1980.

During the 1980s, he organized two conferences on Maya art and one on the Olmec. With Elizabeth Benson he published Maya Iconography, containing papers from the two Maya conferences, in 1988. In 1994, an edition of Griffin's illustrated letters to friends, called Drawn from His Letters, was published. In 1995, the Princeton University Art Museum presented the exhibit "The Olmec World: Ritual and Rulership."

Griffin retired from the Princeton University Art Museum in 2005. The Art Museum mounted a tribute exhibit and symposium in 2005, titled "Unexpected Journey: Gillett G. Griffin and the Art of the Ancient Americas at Princeton." The Record of the Art Museum, Princeton University, volume 64 (2005) contains several pieces that further illuminate Griffin's career.

Two late retrospective exhibits of Griffin's own work took place in Princeton. In 2014, the Arts Council of Princeton displayed paintings, drawings and sketches from Griffin's field notes and diaries in "The Eyes Have It," and in 2016, the Arts Council and the Princeton Public Library co-sponsored a show of portraits, "Heads and Tales: Portraits with Legends by Gillett Good Griffin."

During much of his career in Princeton, Griffin lived in a house at 481 Stockton Street, where he stored collections, gave examinations, and hosted parties. He also spent time in an eighteenth-century cabin he co-owned in Colrain, Massachusetts.

Collection History


Estate of Gillett G. Griffin, 2016 (Attorney Kim Otis, executor). Accession number AR.2017.038.

Griffin's address card file, accession AR.2018.098, was donated by Alfred Bush in December, 2018. Further accruals donated by Alfred Bush arrived in 2019, 2020, and 2021 (AR.2019.030; AR.2020.060; AR.2021.010).


The following material was separated from the papers: two boxes of subject clippings; printed publications and duplicates; student work, grades, recommendation letters and fellowship applications; personal letters not addressed to or written by Gillett Griffin; personal documents of people other than Gillett Griffin.

Leather, plastic and vinyl luggage tags and travel document enclosures have been removed. Some envelopes have been removed.

Processing Information

This collection was processed by Phoebe Nobles in 2017. Finding aid written by Phoebe Nobles in 2017.

Where possible, Griffin's folder titles were maintained. Papers received loose in boxes were arranged into folders and titles were created for those folders. Additional material added to finding aid in 2022 by Phoebe Nobles.

Access & Use

Conditions Governing Access

The collection is open for research use with some exceptions. To protect the privacy of living individuals, portions of this collection are restricted for 25-50 years. Relevant restrictions are noted in the folder descriptions.

Conditions Governing Use

Single photocopies may be made for research purposes. For quotations that are fair use as defined under U. S. Copyright Law, no permission to cite or publish is required. The Trustees of Princeton University hold copyright to all materials generated by Princeton University employees in the course of their work. If copyright is held by Princeton University, researchers will not need to obtain permission, complete any forms, or receive a letter to move forward with non-commercial use of materials from the Mudd Library. For materials where the copyright is not held by the University, researchers are responsible for determining who may hold the copyright and obtaining approval from them. If you have a question about who owns the copyright for an item, you may request clarification by contacting us through the Ask Us! form.

Physical Characteristics and Technical Requirements

Materials in the Gillett Good Griffin Papers have been treated for mold; however, materials may still be fragile and exhibit signs of damage. Researchers should exercise caution when handling these materials.

Credit this material:

Gillett G. Griffin Papers; Princeton University Archives, Department of Special Collections, Princeton University Library

Permanent URL:
Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library
Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library
65 Olden Street
Princeton, NJ 08540, USA
(609) 258-6345
Storage Note:
ReCAP (scarcpph): Box 1-36

Find More

Related Materials

Elmer Adler Papers, CO262

Elizabeth Benson Papers, AC467

Princeton University Library Records, AC123; especially subseries 4C (includes Graphic Arts Collection, Gillett Good Griffin Correspondence)

Subject Terms:
Art history--Study and teaching--New Jersey--Princeton.
Collectors and collecting.
Graphic arts.
Maya art.
Olmec art.
Princeton University--Faculty.