Loopng the Loupe at the MET

Campbell of the met 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canoe we havee in our Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas galleries–the second you start imagining what they were originally made for, what went on around them, it's exciting.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.

9 thoughts on “Loopng the Loupe at the MET

  1. Manon

    Context is necessary, yet shunned by many, particularly by art museums. I know so from experience through my work with museums and the fact that I live with a former curator. The reason? Among other things, because context often means inconvenient truth. For example, it is much easier to talk about the stunning aesthetic qualities of a Dogon mask, than the broader context of the the mask’s symbolism and ultimately the people’s plights. Many museums still believe they devalue the object, because an African mask no longer is the minimalist object when put in proper context, such as imagery of the rituals in which it is used, or shown in the proper context, such as the raffia skirt, etc. I certainly hope Thomas Campbell is only the first of a new generation of museum directors. Such thinking is critical to the survival of art institutions.

  2. Christopher

    I think Campbell, maybe, has grown up in the museum with a completely different ideal of interpretive exhibition design, one that began the 1960s with community level museums. (And other places.)

    It’s hard for art museums to cross over this boundary. Often because the teams that put together the exhibits aren’t nearly as multidisciplinary as a science or history museum team. It’s no accident that when I was studying exhibition design and planning at Georgetown, that there aren’t very many examples from art museums on putting together and working with a broad team — a team with a project manager, education staff, writing group, curators (often several from different disciplines) and of course exhibit designers. All the team is working to formulate a “big idea” and then figure out how all the pieces will tell this story — the artifacts, the writing, the education programs and the design.

    Art museums do still have that smaller view and an expectation of an audience that is not nearly as broad as history and science. Perhaps that’s the problem too, microview for a micro-audience. Only the very big shows that are “easily digestible” — your Monet shows, typically — are ever expected to draw big crowds. And there too often isn’t an understanding that art museums need to fill in gaps in education — that most people have only the faintest idea of art history. Art museums in particular need to do a better job of not just showing work uncommented upon — but explaining why, say, Kadinsky or Klee is so important. Why some work is so-called difficult to first appreciate and how that fits into a larger narrative about art history. The paintings alone don’t do this. There’s not the shared knowledge of art in the same way has historical narrative is shared.

  3. Rick Liebling

    Great points Christopher. I often see exhibits at children’s museums that do an excellent job of telling a narrative. Why did the Egyptians buid pyramids? How? So many art museums fail to provide context, it’s just room after room of white walls with paintings or photos on them. Perhaps if museums provided ‘transition’ from one area to the next, explaining how a certain movement was a reaction to the one you experienced in the previous room.

  4. peter

    Sorry to play the pedant, Grant, but doesn’t the hedgehog know just one thing and the fox many things? In which case, we are asking the hedgehog to become a fox! That transition in fact may be easier than the reverse. It is perhaps what most of us symbol analysts do over the course of our careers, as we move upwards from a techical or professional position to a managerial one.

  5. srp

    We have the loupe issue constantly at business schools. Publication in disciplinary journals stresses micro-level development of science, but relevance to students and business requires lots of context and synthesis. To be fair, most people in business schools are well aware of this tension and try (with varying degrees of sincerity) to relate their loupey ideas to managerially relevant concerns.

  6. Theresa Quintanilla

    I love the phrase “loupey ideas.” My plan is to find new places to apply it.

    I feel in love with museums as an undergraduate art history major, but never wanted to be a curator for some reason. I wanted to work in “audience development.” I wanted other people to experience the thrill of walking up to a famous painting and seeing it in the flesh for the first time. And the exhilaration of discovering an artists you didn’t know that you’d connect with.

    But it was not to be. I interned in several institutions and was quickly disabused of the idea that museum leadership would ever be about appealing to the masses. Museum leadership is about appealing to wealthy people to share their collections and their money. Museums often lose their connection to life as it’s lived by 99% of the world today, much less the world that actually produced the work of art!

  7. Cynthia Young

    It’s great to see such enthusiasm in how museums are run. Thanks Grant and thanks fellow commentators!

    I’ve studied Museology (Museum Studies) and have been a Curator of museum exhibitions, and from these experiences I have come to understand that museums, like most businesses & startups, have to please seemingly conflicting needs. An example can be a Director fulfilling various requests of donors—the people who provided the big bucks that keep a museum alive. Then, you have families and tourists who want something that sparks their imagination and appreciation for things like art, history, or science. If you can’t, they will go to the Indiana Jones ride at Disney Land because the fake artifacts and presentation there are more engaging. Then, there is the obligation to be the bearers of accurate and full information, and thus you get the PhDs and Curators obsessed with precise information.

    For a refreshing change, visit a smaller museum in your neighborhood. You are more likely to get one-on-one time with the Director or other key educators. A conversation with them will do more for your imagination and inspiration than any big exhibition label would.

  8. Grant McCracken

    Cynthia, directors must be all things to all people, when vested interests
    want them to be very particular and monolithic things and “all people” get
    more and more diverse in their points of view. As you say, this must be the
    shortest path to administrative misery. Thanks, Grant

Comments are closed.