Friday, October 12, 2007

Soul of a Museum

“I often think of the Museum as a medieval castle with all ranks of people busy doing whatever the castle needs,” says one curator in Danny Danziger’s Museum: Behind the Scenes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. By interviewing someone at nearly every rank within the “castle,” Danzinger captures the soul of the museum—the people behind it, from the director down to the person who arranges the flowers in the entrance hall. “I was struck by the level of commitment from everybody whose life is touched by the Met, whether it’s the time and money that the trustees voluntarily give, or the pride and commitment that the employees feel,” Danziger writes. “I had expected to find some discontent.. But in this place, it is as if Oberon had sprinkled fairy dust over the lot of them, and, you know what?—it doesn’t make it any less interesting.” Danziger takes Tolstoy’s idea that all happy families are alike, but unhappy families are unhappy in their own unique way and turns it on its head. The Met’s family is definitely happy in its own unique way.

Second only in size to the Louvre, the Met takes up four city blocks and more than two million square feet of space. Danziger manages to make that huge expanse seem intimate by focusing in on 49 different individuals encompassing the whole spectrum of the Met family. Each offers a unique perspective on the museum, art, and life in general. A proud Honduran immigrant who owes everything he has to his job on the museum’s cleaning staff points to the Emmanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware as his favorite painting, while the curator for American painting feels that Washington Crossing the Delaware is as overexposed as Jennifer Aniston. A curator of Islamic art recalls his time in Afghanistan during the conflict with the Soviet Union in the late 1970s, calling it “my Auschwitz and my Khmer Rouge.” “I felt it was simply unfair of me to take refuge in twelfth century archaeology or fifteenth-century painting and turn a deaf ear to the screams of pain I was hearing,” he reasons, echoing similar sentiments throughout the interviews that the museum be a vital place of understanding connected with the world today and not a musty escape into a sterile past.

My two favorite strata of the museum hierarchy are the curators and the trustees. In their interviews, the curators simply gush with enthusiasm over the collection and want to share their hard-earned knowledge with everyone. Having met and spoken with several curators in person now, this book comes as close as possible to living that same experience without actually meeting someone face to face. They almost all share their “what would I grab and run with in a fire” stories. (The museum’s fire safety man throws cold water on that game by pragmatically asserting that he’d grab a hose rather than art.)

Perhaps the most exotic animal exposed by Danziger’s book is the Met’s species of trustee. Rich, powerful, and cultured, each of these trustees seems to be from another world surrounded by their lavish personal art collections. Standing in the library of the Manhattan office of one of these trustees, Danziger recalls looking out a window and seeing “not just a part of Central Park, but all of Central Park and further north, until one can see, or imagine one is seeing, Canada.” One curator, however, bemoans the link between art and money: “Art has become too tied to money and power. You can compare the collecting of art today with the collecting of relics in the Middle Ages. It’s a way of expiating sins, a way of rising in society, and instead of having a chapel named after you, you have a wing of a museum named after you.” Despite this qualm, the benefits of these generous benefactors in the form of their contribution to the museum outweigh any “sins” they may commit.

It will be hard to walk into the Met or any other museum after reading this book and not think about the untold stories of the staff members, such as the Met’s chief security officer who has met every U.S. President since Nixon, with the exception of the current White House resident (not a museum guy). I found it annoying at times that each interview begins simply with the subject’s name, forcing you to flip back to the front to find out their role or title at the Met. Then I realized that Danziger may have done that purposely, to make us discover these people as people and not reduce them immediately to the label of a waitress, tour guide, or wealthy trustee. Danziger recovers the human element sometimes lost in all the beautiful objects and reminds us that museums may be full of objects created and used by the dead, but that it exists for the use of and communication with the living.

[Many thanks to Viking Books for providing me with a review copy of this book.]

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