Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Thomas Hoving: In Memoriam

The fall quarter of my second year in grad school, I had the opportunity of a lifetime--I interned at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Sure this was one the world's largest and most renowned museums, but more importantly for me, it was the museum of my childhood. My grandparents lived a few blocks away and I grew up with family trips to the museum and playing in the Ancient Playground in Central Park next to the Egyptian wing of the museum. Growing up, the Egyptian wing *was* the museum for me. Entering the hieroglyphic-walled tombs transported me back to the days of Joseph and his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and as far as I was concerned, visiting the Temple of Dendur was like actually leaving the US and traveling to Egypt.

So when I was accepted for a fall internship doing double-duty in both the museum's development and registration departments, I could scarcely contain my joy. Every day as I went into work I would whisper to myself, "This is real, this real, this is real--I am really here!" Fridays, after work, I would often take advantage of the longer hours and roam the galleries, falling in love time after time with each trip through the building to the sounds of mezzanine piano bar.

At some point early on during my internship, I learned that the man who had been director when I was young--and who was responsible for many of the things I loved about the museum--had written a book about his time as director. I made a trip to the museum bookstore, made use of my staff discount and began reading. The book was Making the Mummies Dance. The man was Thomas Hoving.

I couldn't put the book down. Thomas Hoving's writing style was so unapologeticly daring and arrogant it was almost scandalous as he spoke candidly about turning the staid museum world on its ear. Blockbuster exhibitions, posh galas, the Temple of Dendur, the Euphronios krater--all of these were thanks to Hoving. Okay, maybe the krater wasn't a great judgment call, but am I grateful that I was able to see it up close and in person every day? You bet I was and am.

Even though I was already working "behind-the-scenes" at the Met, Hoving's book made me feel even more like an insider, like I was gaining truly secret insights to how the place was run and to how the business of art and museums happened. My supervisor's cautioned me to take his book with a grain of salt, some were even vaguely dismissive. But I came to view Hoving as my unofficial guide and mentor to my new surroundings, offering me a view that I found somewhat thrilling and romantic.

Of course, that is what the book was supposed to do and as the years went on I came to understand why those around me had cautioned me not to take Hoving's word as the be all and end all of either the museum world in general or the Met in particular. He tended towards the sensational over the sensible and his practices were not always best.

But I still love Making the Mummies Dance and there is no denying Hoving's impact on not just the Met but the whole museum field. As one obituary states, "Did he democratize, glamorize or coarsen the museum experience? You already know the answer. He did all three."

Mr. Hoving, you will be missed. Thank you for shaking things up and transforming the museum world.

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