A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
This book on the Metropolitan Museum of Art is unusual, it’s not a sweeping history, nor is it a documentary, in fact, it doesn’t even follow a linear path. Instead, it’s a collection of interviews with the various workers and people involved in running the New York museum, not just the bigwigs, but “the little people”, including a janitor, plumber and waitress. Each brief chapter is a different person and it’s quite fascinating to read of the backgrounds, experiences and philosophies of such varied people, all working in the same building.
This egalitarian approach works well, some of the ‘lowly’ workers are the most interesting. Such as the waitress observing “A lot of people’s behavior is governed by the need to feel important…” At times the interviews go off on tangents that have nothing to do with the Met, but about their own pre-occupations such as retirement plans, sports cars or a book they are writing on Abraham Lincoln. One trustee is so self-involved he talks exclusively about his own art collection and only mentions the museum when he boasts about donating funds for a wing named after himself.
The book is most interesting when the interviewee grows enthusiastic about their job, giving us details about their favorite works, how they care for them or big events that they’ve been involved in, such as transporting an entire Frank Lloyd Wright house from Indiana to NYC. They often describe the artworks and building with such vividness that the reader can picture it clearly. This is when we get a true feeling of being behind the scenes.
Each interview is headed by a quote from the person and a blurb about the impression they made on the author. However, it’s not always clear what position the person occupies and there were times I didn’t know until well into their story. Why the name of their job could not be included in the blurb is puzzling, it would’ve solved a lot of confusion. Also some of the interviews end much too abruptly, giving the impression that the person jumped up and left the room, when it’s really just poor editing.
While there is a slight assumption that the reader is familiar with this particular museum, possibly because of the format, it’s descriptive enough that people who haven’t been there (like me) don’t feel lost. It does, however make one eager to see some areas that were previously unknown; the Tiffany room, the Assyrian basreliefs, the medieval tapestries, whether one has visited the museum or not. In that case, the book succeeds in being inspirational as well as interesting.
Viking 2007 304 pp. ISBN 978-0-670-03861-9