Books | Museum: Behind the Scenes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

The entrance hall of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.

So I read my first book, and it is not even the end of January yet. If you read my last post you will know that I am on a quest to reconnect with reading. I happened upon the book quite by accident as I was perusing our university library for resources to use for an assignment I was working on, so I grabbed it and ended up reading it cover-to-cover.

“Keith is a tall, athletic-looking man, with the firmest handshake you would ever want to avoid”

p. 46 – Writing about Keith Christiansen, Jayne Wrightsman Curator, European Paintings

The book is a series of interviews with staff from all over the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York – from the cleaner, a plumber, through security to curators, trustees and many more in between. Author Danny Danziger has cleverly crafted the book so that each chapter reads as if the person who the chapter is dedicated to is giving you a personal insight into the individual’s life and their relation with the Museum. This makes for a dynamic read, a coherent read. At the beginning of each chapter Danziger has added a little introduction to the individual. It add his voice to the mix, introducing the individual either by an interesting feature, an anecdotal remark about their first meeting, or other comments about the individual. I found this a really clever way to set the tone for each chapter, breaking them up and making it clear that each one pertains to a different person. On the whole I found this feature very appealing – at times quite funny, like in the quote above – however I did also find a few of them a little problematic, like in the cases below of the women’s art and Arms & Armor curators which I found a tad too stereotyping. I wonder though if this reasoning might be due in part to reading it from a northern European perspective and in view of the developments in recognising the importance of language when considering gender roles. For instance, why is it an addendum that Amelia Peck is “thoughtful and challenging, quirky and humorous”? Is she not supposed to be so because she is dealing with women’s art?, and why should Stuart W. Pyhrr not be gentle and thoughtful? Does working with weapons mean you have to be aggressive and looking for fights?

“As you might expect from a woman who deals primarily with women’s art, which is a unique role within the Museum, this is a bold forthright, outspoken woman. She is also thoughtful and challenging, quirky and humorous.”

p. 181 – Writing about Amelia Peck, Marica F. Vilcek Curator, American Decorative Arts

“For a man who presides over the Arms & Armor Department, galleries festooned with halberds, pikes, swords, muskets, crossbows, and numerous other weapons of mass destruction, Stuart looks remarkably unbellicose. Furthermore, he is reassuringly gentle and thoughtful in his speech.”

p. 185 – Writing about Stuart W. Pyhrr, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Curator in Charge, Arms & Armor

This small concern – springing mainly from a personal interest in equality of the sexes and the importance of language in manifesting that reality – aside, I really enjoyed reading this book… I wonder if that might explain why I could not stop picking it up, and that I finished it in less than a week. It did mean several 2-3 hour long reading sessions, but with a material that I found interesting and familiar (I grew up in a museum – a story for another post) it made those sessions quite enjoyable. I did find while reading it that I have some things to work on. The first I came across was a nagging feeling that I was missing out on doing other social activities if I prioritise reading. Not that anything was happening, but what if? This in turn let me to realise that I have a rather obsessive behaviour when it comes to finishing things and seeing them completed, all neatly tied up with a bow. Things take time and that is okay, and a book taking two weeks instead of one to complete is okay too.

If you have the chance to read the book I highly recommend it for anyone interested in a look behind the scenes at the museum – in this case learning more about some of the many people that make up the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Some faces have changed since the book was published in 2008, but the types of people who work in museums is very nicely represented by this book.

Cover of Danny Danzinger's book Museum: Behind the Scenes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Cover of Danny Danzinger’s book Museum: Behind the Scenes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art ©Penguin Books

Danziger, Danny. Museum: Behind the Scenes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York: Penguin Books, 2008 [2007].

Featured photograph by Sasha Andersen.

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