Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Museum: behind the scenes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art by Danny Danziger

This is a hard book to describe, because it is a collection of interviews of a cross-section of people who work for or are connected to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.  The museum first opened its doors in April of 1870. It has grown to be one of the world’s top museums, spending millions on its collections and housing great treasures of past and present civilizations.  Out of around 2,000 people, Danziger interviewed 52.  The interviews were edited to appear as thoughtful monologues by each person, with only a few observations by Danziger inserted at the beginning of each monologue.  We read about each person's background, what their work is like, what it means to them, and so forth.  

One critic said in their review of the book that they could decipher the absent questions by the flow of the text, but to me the monologues flow smoothly and give just enough detail to keep the reader’s interest, whether the person is recounting a personal tragedy or explaining the reasons why Islamic Art is an “orphan art form” – how its civilizations crumbled and outsiders failed to engage with its principles and its interests, leaving it without an established place in the history of art. 

All of the curators are amazing, in what they know and what they have pursued, not for material gain (which point keeps resurfacing) but for their passion regarding art, the objects and their creators. And similarly amazing are the people who do other things – like the person manning the front desk for thirty years.  His impressions of the visitors’ traits are intriguing, like how the Brits tend to say ‘brilliant’ for emphasis, which he finds amusing.  And the waitress who has a dying father who is going through invasive treatments with no respite, to whom she can only say “I love you Daddy”.  Yet she separates her grief from her work, knowing that she’s there to help the museum visitors have a perfect day.  The benefactor, the rich man who gives and gets others to give, is absolutely tenacious in his pursuit of donations, yet you can feel his quiet sense of character in his convictions.  He has no illusions about our being born generous.  He says that people have to be persuaded both by example, and by the idea that they can have a particular role in preserving and cultivating the arts.  

          Ultimately what comes across is how these people’s lives have been enriched by what they do, with their contact with these buildings and this collection.  There might be some hard feelings, but you don’t hear of it.  What you hear primarily is how glad they are to work there, to be around the art, to arrive each morning in the Great Hall.   The now former director, Phillipe de Montebello, says “I am the Met, the Met is me.” After 31 years as director, that’s a wonderful statement.  And to varying degrees, that’s what you hear from all the others.  
          Click here to see the catalog listing.       

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