My dad was a printer. Occasionally, he'd look at our newspaper with a "loupe," a magnifying glass. Printers use loupes to examine the dots that make up the letters on a page. At this level of detail, you can't see words, sentences, or headlines. Just dots.
I was reminded of loupes a lot when working in the museum world. This institution likes to look at the world very finely indeed. Curators corps spend their careers examining small bodies of evidence ever so carefully. The museum likes the loupe's eye view.
This spells trouble when the museum engages in public education. The museum curator wants to talk about subtle variations in the chair design in Concorde, Massachusetts in the period 1743 to 1760. The museum visitor wants a bigger picture. She wants to know how chairs tell the story of, say, children and child rearing in 18th century New England.
The loupe-eye view also spells trouble when it comes to finding someone to run the institution. To have authority within the institution, the Museum Director often comes from the curatorial ranks. Darn! We are asking the master of the fine detail to become the champion of the big picture. (Or we could adapt Isaiah Berlin's language: We are asking a hedgehog to become a fox.)
So it was a pleasant surprise to hear the new Director at the MET, Thomas Campbell, say the following.
Whether it's the grandeur of the Assyrian Reliefs room we have right above the end of the Great Hall, or the Temple of Dendur, or the dugout canoe we havee in our Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas galleries–the second you start imagining what they were originally made for, what went on around them, it's exciting. You can practically here the sound of skin drums, or human sacrificies, or see the studiolo of a Renaissance connoisseur.
This is the bigger picture we need from a curator. This is the sort of thing that brings in the public. Yes, certainly, from the curatorial point of view, it errs in the direction of a romantic vision, inflaming the imagination, dramatizing the collection, embracing the cinematic. But exactly. As long as the MET is a public institution, it cannot please merely its curators and collecting elites. It must also speak to the rest of us.
Mead, Rebecca. 2009. Renaissance Man. The New Yorker. July 27, pp. 52-59, p. 57.