Take Me Out to the Met


It was a different time. I was a kid. In a city, in a good neighborhood, in a country where university students, or rather the whole youth in the cities were rebelling. A kind of reign of terror was what was felt. Communism was the enemy and the fear of its arrival was very strong, yet all facets of lives were controlled.

The currency was not convertible. You weren't allowed to own US Dollars or any other currency, and you just hid them. Imports and exports were very difficult and a lot of necessities could only be obtained in the black market. You would see people waiting in long lines just to be able to buy things like flour, or sugar, or butter. The government stated you could only travel out of the country once every other year, unless you had a foreign residence or had another citizenship.

And there was state censorship: Journalists were assassinated or jailed, and anybody who just voiced opposition were taken into custody. There was no due process. No proof was needed and those imprisoned had to wait for years just to be arraigned. Everybody hated one another: the left, the right, the nationalists and the religionists.

There was one state controlled television channel. And there’s no point in my telling that it was censored. I am assuming it was watched only by those in the cities, considering there were still places without electricity in the eastern parts.

In our bourgeois lives, at mid-morning on any given Sunday, the one and only state-controlled TV channel would air a program called The Sunday Concert, which was a recording of a classical music orchestra more often than not from one of the major Philharmonic or Symphony orchestras of the world. I remember while my parents, and my brother and I tended to other things, the TV in the living room and the kitchen would be on, loudly playing, as we listened to it in the background. It was good. It was what was needed. The state was telling us culture and classical music was good. Completely ignoring the majority of the people who would never like it, oblivious to their wants and needs. I think the majority waited for the movie, The Sunday Cinema, that would start immediately after the Sunday Concert.

But in my family, by then we would have been gone for lunch, and it was for that reason we would set up the VCR to record: They were not very common then. A Betamax which required two strong people to lift it. Its buttons were so heavy to push down you had to support your index finger with the middle one. In the afternoon after we were back home, we would watch whatever movie had been shown. We were happy. Sundays spent with family, and friends, living in a nice home, access to education, traveling and being part of the rulers’ ethnicity and class made life good, yet ignorant in a way too.

Two films I remember from the many recordings of The Sunday Cinema, is What’s up Doc? with Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal which we still quote from time to time with my brother, and the other, which had a huge impact on me, is The Hideaways. Years later, I found out it was the adaptation of E.L. Konigsburg’s book From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil Frankweiler.

The film, is about Claudia, a girl living with her family in a suburb of New York, who likes to daydream and read, and is tired of being asked to help with the household chores. One day as she takes the trash out, she finds two train tickets to Manhattan, and this gets her thinking. She plans this adventure including her younger brother who is quite savvy in making money through card games etc., to run away to Manhattan and live at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They go. And they end up staying at the Met.

Going through the empty galleries one night, Claudia falls in love with a sculpture which might or might not be Michelangelo. And from there starts her research into finding its provenance and its donor to the Met, Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, who was played by Ingrid Bergman. It was adventurous and daring to live in the best museum in the world in New York City all the while teaching your parents a lesson for taking you for granted. It was wonderful also because she discovered a mystery, investigated it to unearth a truth that no one else did. As a girl who liked to dream, I so loved Claudia.

This is also how I first found out about the Met. A beautiful museum. An Encyclopedic one. It is about the history of Western Civilization. Egyptian, Roman and Greek antiquities and so many others of course. Its living history. Yes, it is the story, the history, of conquest, conquer, exploration and exploitation, colonialism and imperialism. I guess no one should deny that. We have to look at it from a revisionist point of view. And just accept I guess. No matter how difficult it is to accept the way of living imposed by our ancestors’. What’s done is done. How can you make a difference now, if you don’t accept your forebearers’ mistakes?

Photo: Amazon.com

The Met is having a hard time. Like all museums and other such nonprofit organizations. Encyclopedic museums have even a harder time to increase visitation numbers by younger masses. And diverse ones too. Sure, the Met Gala on the first Monday of May is televised by TV shows, and pictures from the entrance are displayed everywhere with much anticipation, as it is touted as Fashion's Most Important Night, but how can it be replicated for other sections of the museum other than this night which is timed to the opening of The Costume Institute’s exhibition opening in May. How can any other museum increase interest in visits to museums?

I frankly don’t think it can be very difficult. If you have a good product, it will always sell. Build a brand, make the product desirable with programs, exhibitions, education, promote like hell, and most important of all be a fantastic salesperson: raise money, build relationships, be likable and extremely sociable. If you don’t have enough visitation I think it’s your fault. From what I understand the new director of the Met, Max Hollein who has an art and business mindset is able to do that. I sure hope so.

But I have an issue with this choice: Seriously. Another Man? A White/European Man? And, a straight one at that. Por favor!

This is the 10th male director of the Met. This past Summer I read a book called Sacred and Stolen: Confessions of a Museum Director by Gary Vikan, a former director of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore about his experiences. And I just couldn’t stand it. I realized that I couldn’t listen to the voice of another White Straight Male Museum Director’s condescending tone anymore. No matter how good they might be in their jobs I believe you alienate a lot of the people with younger mindsets with just that. Especially at this day and age.

Photo: Amazon.com

Consider Max Hollein’s home country Austria, a place I visited often as my uncle, two of my cousins, and even my brother studied there. (I first saw Gustav Klimt's Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, the Woman in Gold, at the Belvedere Museum in Vienna when I was just a kid). One of the fondest memories I have of my late mother is a visit she and I did to the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, and how tired and happy we were afterwards when we sat at the steps outside looking at the Naturhistorisches Museum across the plaza and talking about the masterpieces we had just seen. Now this museum has a woman director. Sabine Haag is the director of a major encyclopedic museum—although when her term ends she too is being replaced by a man. Similarly, keeping with the times, The Tate which holds British art in four museums, after Nicholas Serrota, has appointed Maria Balshaw as their director in June 2017. Surely they must realize how important diversity is.

In any case, I want the director to be successful. I want to have more visitors. And that people enjoy going there. Encyclopedic museums have to find their place in our contemporary world. They have to accept what they hold in their museums and what they also imply in the larger context of history. Case in point, the museum scene at The Black Panther movie: Yes, encyclopedic museums do tell the story of exploitation in a way. An elitist worldview imposed on the masses. Of the rulers and the ruled whose objects were just taken from them as spoils of war or trophies to be taken back home.

I think in our globally connected lives, a way can be found where no one feels left out in any museum. Instead of feeling out of place, or instead of feeling being robbed of your heritage, or on the other hand, instead of feeling a pride of superiority, a sense of belonging for everybody can be achieved. Museums should not automatically defend the past. The rhetoric of past Met director Philippe de Montebello, and the British Museum's Neil MacGregor and others have been so defensive, and filled with condescension, with a sense of entitlement and a feeling of superiority so evident that only widens the gap between different classes of people. I am not saying go ahead and give everything away, or apologize or anything. All I am saying is own up to it, the whole history, and be accepting and understanding all points of view and address them accordingly. And have exhibitions, programs, that bring in more people of all demographics, especially young ones.

But from where I sit, it is very difficult to think that this is your intention when your new director is a European white, straight male. Times have changed but they also haven't. A little girl from a third world country’s western side can and should be made to want to be Claudia, and want to live in a museum.

Museums of today have to understand that what is expected from them is the Truth. Don't be defensive. And be fair to all points of view. And also, free your mind. If you make this your starting point, the rest will follow..

With thanks to my friend Elizabeth Pines, for patiently taking my photograph on the steps of the Met.

#TheMet #MetropolitanMuseumofArt #FromtheMixedupFilesofMrsBasilFrankweiler #TheHideaways #EncyclopedicMuseums #Diversitymuseums