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Museum: Behind the Scenes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art by Danny Danziger

July 23, 2009

This book is a collection of over 50 interviews with EVERYONE (well, a sampling of almost everyone) who works at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and who contributes to the smooth operations of the museum. From security guards, florists, waitresses and janitors to curators, trustees and the director himself (Phillipe de Montebello, at the time of the book’s publication in 2007) this book covers it all. What I found most moving about the interviews was that the auther, Danny Danziger, obviously had a way to convince people to open up to him and be very candid about how they felt about their job and how it has affected their life. Many of the people interviewed had been working at the Met for a really long time, significant because everyone loved their job and felt so lucky to be able to contribute  and would never imagine leaving (as much as I wanted to read this as propaganda, the interviews did ring true).

What really struck me was the diverse personalities drawn to the museum, a waitress trained in classical opera who had a very spiritual view of her often tiring job, a dutch florist who spends hours every Monday while the museum is closed arranging the giant floral arrangement in the entrance hall, and (what seems to me to be) the world’s luckiest trustees and curators who get to live with the art everyday and influence the director in what the museum purchases. The book even has an interview with the curator, Keith Christiansen, who convinced de Montebello to purchase Duccio’s “Maddonna and Child” that was described by the director as, “one of the great single acquisitions of the last half  century” and which I vividly remember having to travel to NYC to visit for one of my art history papers. I stood absorbed in front of that tiny 11 by 8 inch panel for I think almost two hours… It is just gorgeous and the story behind the exhilarating fight for its acquisition (and the consequent struggle for financing, since it cost over $45 million and was the most expensive purchase in the museum’s entire history) is a equally thrilling.

Madonna and Child, ca. 1300 Duccio di Buoninsegna

Madonna and Child, ca. 1300 Duccio di Buoninsegna

What was also great about this book was that you could hear the stories of how people came to find themselves tied to the museum – the curator of East Asian art grew up in a small town in the Midwest, the head of plumbing just stumbled upon the job one day and has transformed the (surprisingly complicated) department over many years, the head of the architecture department grew up in Philadelphia where he admired many of the old townhouses. It’s inspiring to see the twisted paths that these people took to one of my favorite places in the world and it reminds me that a dream job is possible. Not only that, but the enthusiasm that each person lets shine through in their interview is a strong reminder that it takes a lot of energy and motivation to keep a great institution like the Met running, let alone keep it up-to-date and inspiring. Although some reviewers have complained that the book is a disjointed collection of memories and snippets of information, I disagree. Even without ever having been to the Met it is easy to take from this book the  sense of mission that these people bring to their jobs. While each interview is different, and some can go off on tangents that have nothing to do with the museum itself (for instance, a childhood experience of the interviewee, their family life etc.) I don’t believe that takes away from the book but rather enhances our view of these people and what they bring to their work.

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