Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Days at the Museum

Reviewed by Bernadette Callery, Assistant Professor, University of Pittsburgh School of Information Sciences

Danny Danziger. Museum: Behind the Scenes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York: Penguin, 2007. ISBN: 978-0-14-311426-0 (pb) $16.00

Editor and historian of science George Sarton notes in his 1950 “Notes on the reviewing of learned books,” that a reviewer should provide some background on the subject of a biography, asserting that “the reader cannot be expected to take any interest in the biography of a man of whom he knows nothing.” Danny Danziger was evidently of the same mind when he compiled the collection of soundbites called Museum: Behind the Scenes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. While the work is heavily weighted to transcriptions of comments from curators, including the outgoing director Philippe de Montebello, and trustees, we also learn what inspires and sustains the work of exhibition managers, editors, security chiefs, maintenance men, waitresses and the florist who does the flowers in the Great Hall.

Danziger is not the first to notice that museums create their own ecosystems and this kind of social anthropology is what gives interest to the ever-popular “behind the scenes” tours of museums. Unfortunately, what may have been intended as candor sometimes comes across as frivolous or sentimental, to the extent that one wonders if the subjects appreciated the fact that their remarks would be immortalized in print.

Predictably, and revealing my bias, the best sections are the mini-lectures from the curators, as they respond to the sort of questions they’re often asked about their favorite items in the collections, their academic training, and how they got their jobs at the MET. Given the treasures they represent, museum people are often interesting conversationalists, but, based on this sampling, the trajectory to their jobs would appear to be a bit more haphazard than the rest of us.

One irritating aspect of the design of the work is that while Danziger provides the job title of the person interviewed in the table of contents, that information is not repeated at the head of their chapter. Instead, we’re treated to a brief comment on the appearance or personality quirk of the subject. Danziger’s implicit message to those seeking positions in the museum community is that in addition to knowing a lot about your subject, you should also cultivate an attractive eccentricity.

For more detail on what at least one group of museum staff do, as well as why they do it, consider Registrars on Record: Essays on Museum Collections Management, edited by Mary Case and published in 1988 by the American Association of Museums. This collection includes registrar Carol O’Biso’s account of her involvement in the preparation of a major exhibition of Maori cultural artifacts, which is an example of museum storytelling at its best.