MUSEUM: BEHIND THE SCENES AT THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART
By Danny Danziger
Viking, 227 pages, $27.95
Danny Danziger’s Museum: Behind the Scenes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art introduces us to 49 individuals who have dedicated their lives to the Met. The book, which primarily comprises first-person testimonials, opens a window not only onto the life and times of the many well-heeled trustees and the scholarly curators at the Met, but also onto the Met-lives of a janitor, a plumber, a waitress, a florist and a cop who works the museum beat in a golf cart.
In the preface, Mr. Danziger proclaims the Met an inspiring example of what “private wealth in public-spirited hands can achieve.”
It’s impossible to refute his main point: It takes a village to run the Met. After all, the place employs some 2,000 people. The other theme he appears to be driving home is equally self-evident, that the village is made up of—wait for it—individuals!
Unfortunately, working in some capacity for the Met does not, in and of itself, a compelling character make. And many of the varied Met folk we meet seem to share a knack for telling antiseptic stories. (Or is this the fault of Mr. Danziger, who conducted the interviews?)
Very few scenes stand out in this composite oral history. Each platitudinous entry after the next reads like a résumé stapled atop a “why I like my job” survey.
The three-and-a-half pages on James R. Houghton, the trustee board chairman, reveal, for instance, that he grew up and continues to live in the small but storied city of Corning, N.Y., went to St. Paul’s—as did his children—and has traveled a lot. He’s especially fond of India.
Each mini-bio is fitted with a zany anecdote; Mr. Houghton’s is no exception: When asked to head up the board, he responded, “This is crazy. I’m a WASP from upstate New York.”
You’ll be glad to know Met director of communications Harold Holzer went on a family trip to the Guggenheim in 1959, missed the draft on account of complications due to a melanoma, quickly advanced his career in public relations and—so he thinks—ultimately nabbed his position at the Met when he ordered cheese for dessert during his job interview.
Juan Aranda, who is on the cleaning crew at the museum, is from Honduras, had trouble learning English and says the “Museum becomes very messy, especially in the wintertime, when people drag in the snow.”
Trustee Michel David-Weill is French and very much enjoys the special Met card he gets in exchange for his generosity. His “unexpected anecdote”—Mr. Danziger’s specialty, according to the dust jacket—is: “The art I have is like having a harem, and with a harem you like all the ladies equally. At least you don’t reveal publicly which is your preferred one; otherwise you are a bad harem keeper.”
Those of you who have been licking your lips in anticipation of some delicious “behind the scenes” drama are bound to be disappointed. Mr. Danziger is no Studs Terkel, after whose brilliant collection of interviews, Working, this book appears to be modeled. For all his digging, the author has unearthed little more than a few fun facts concerning the family history, upbringing, education and career trajectory of his subjects. The discovery at the end of every vignette? The subject loves his job.
The occasional charming anecdote, such as Met C.E.O. Philippe de Montebello’s line about how his very minimal knowledge of bridge got him hired, only serve to remind the reader of how devoid of life the rest of the pages are.
Mr. de Montebello is responsible for one of the only stirring moments in the book: “I am the Met, the Met is me,” he is quoted. He adds: “But this identification of director and institution will make it more difficult for my successor. I guess the greatest favor I could do my successor is to arrange for a few little disasters to occur in my last year, whenever that is, so he looks good.”
Of course, the spectacle of Mr. de Montebello making pompous pronouncements is about as surprising as the dropping of the New Year’s Eve Ball.
The florist for The Great Hall, Remco van Vliet of Holland, also loves his job at the Met, but he admits to some occasional regrets. “I miss my friends, of course, and wonderful Dutch food, like kroketten, which is like ragout rolled into bread crumbs and deep fried, which you eat with mustard.”
And I miss the two hours I spent reading Museum.
Spencer Morgan is a reporter at The Observer.