I love art museums. I don’t consider myself much of an art expert by any means, but I love to wander the halls of big galleries and museums and explore the collections. Like many people sometimes I love what I see, sometimes I hate it and sometimes I just don’t get what all the fuss is about.
It was my interest in learning more about a major museum that I have never visited (the Met in New York) that made me pick up the book Museum: behind the scenes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art by Danny Danziger. The book ended up being totally different from what I expected, but I still thoroughly enjoyed it. I expected a book that would give the history of the museum, some insight into the art within its walls and maybe a bit more of a sense of art history. I got that to a degree―but not in the way I anticipated.
Rather than being a straight ahead factual history, this book is a collection of interviews with staff at the museum about their jobs, their experiences and what the Metropolitan Museum means to them. Each person interviewed―from curators, to security officers, trustees to plumbers, florists to the chief librarian―has a passion and an interest in the collections and the building. Danziger explores the interviewees’ lives, what brought them to the museum and what they like and love about their work (in his introduction, Danziger notes his own surprise about how universally positive the employees were in his conversations with him).
The pieces are all very short―five to ten pages―and Danziger transcribes the actual conversations in a way that is very light and easy to read. It’s intriguing to see how all the various facets of work fit together to create the smooth operation of such a large institution. The interviews with people involved in non-art related jobs were many of my favourites―it was delightful to read about the artistic passions and theories of employees who aren’t directly involved with shaping the collections. Yet at the same time, I enjoyed the many interviews with curators and experts; particularly, I was surprised to find how much I enjoyed the interviews with those who focused on areas of art that I don’t consider myself a fan of: their enthusiasm was contagious.
Whether you have a passion for art or a passion for people, Museum: behind the scenes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art can address both.
A few other suggestions.
For the type of book I thought I was getting into when I first picked up Danziger’s try Merchants and Masterpieces: the story of the Metropolitan Museum of Art by Calvin Tomkins. Metropolitan Museum director Philippe de Montebello apparently insisted that Danziger read this history before giving permission for his staff to take part in the interview/book project. Danziger calls Merchants and Masterpieces “scholarly and gripping”.
For other books based on interviews or in an interview style try:
Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: a road trip with David Foster Wallace
by David Lipsky: a very recent release in which Lipsky relays the interviews he made with DFW during a book tour for Infinite Jest. Publisher’s Weekly said “Among the repetitions, ellipses, and fumbling that make Wallace’s patter so compellingly real are observations as elegant and insightful as his essays.”
How to Live: a search for wisdom from old people (while they are still on this earth)
by Henry Alford: chronicles the author’s interviews with seniors from all walks of life in an attempt to gain the benefit of their years of knowledge and experience, as he himself contemplates life at middle age.
Listening is an Act of Love : a celebration of American life from the StoryCorps Project edited and with an introduction by Dave Isay: Based on an audio project by StoryCorps whose aim is to record and preserve the stories of everyday Americans. “This book is a collection of the most compelling excerpts from more than 10,000 interviews recorded… And they are compelling. Each one captures a moment in time—historical, emotional or personal—that make us who we are.” (Library Journal)
My Favourite Dress: by Gity Monsef: perhaps a book to look at as much as to read (it is described by the publisher as “lavishly illustrated” with “text, photographs by leading fashion photographers, fabric samples, original sketches and other ephemera”) chronicles interviews with famous names from the fashion world on their memories and thoughts on their favourite dress.
Nine Lives: death and life in New Orleans by Dan Baum: “a multivoiced biography of this dazzling, surreal, and imperiled city through the lives of nine characters over forty years and bracketed by two epic storms: Hurricane Betsy, which transformed the city in the 1960’s, and Katrina, which nearly destroyed it.” (library catalogue summary)