March 10, 2012

Why a little TED profanity makes me hopeful about Campbell’s Met

The recent TED Talk by Metropolitan Museum of Art director Thomas Campbell hasn’t been posted yet, but the summary on the TED blog sounds terrific — the clearest statement yet that this iconic institution is under new, 21st century management. And the rest of the museum seems to be getting the memo.

According to the blog, Campbell told the assembled TEDsters that the first art history course he took was taught by a hard-drinking, foul-mouthed professor, who at one point showed them a painting depicting a debauched scene with nude figures engaged in all manner of excess. He asked the class what the scene was, and good-boy Campbell — future heir to the throne of patrician prince Philippe de Montebello at the Met — answered that it was a  “bacchanal.”

“You fucking bookworm,” corrected his professor. “It’s a fucking orgy.”

It’s a great joke, particularly if you’ve ever read the labels at an art museum. Campbell’s point in telling it was that he has tried to incorporate that kind of directness in his own curation, part of his project at the Met (and the title of his TED talk): breaking down the walls of the museum. 

All of which must have been a conscious and brave declaration of departure from his predecessor, whose high-flown rhetoric about the timeless power of great art was altogether in the “bacchanal” register. Good for Campbell, and hello to the new Met.

The question is how he’ll put the museum’s money where his mouth is — and whether he’ll be able to do so, given the weight of tradition and the autonomy of senior curators at such an institution. Will the exhibition labels and wall texts really leave behind the kind of curator-speak that Campbell’s professor was so impatient with? Will the Met’s interpretive voice come that far down to earth, stripping away the academic objectivity and the distancing, Latinate rhetoric to get down to the personal, human pleasures of art? ...

That’s certainly the idea behind the Connections series on the Met’s web site, personal musings by senior staff members (including curators and Campbell himself) about certain works in the museum’s collection, played over images of those objects. The talks are informal and subjective by the standards of today’s buttoned-down art museums, but far more polished and controlled than much of what we hear in contemporary culture and new media. Still, an important step toward breaking down those walls between museum-land and the rest of human experience.

And it’s even in evidence on the Met’s web site, where you have to look long and hard to find the kind of jargon that Campbell promised in his TED talk to “ the front door.” What you do find is a museum writing with pride and palpable enthusiasm about its stuff, in ways that imply (but don’t outright acknowledge) the humans behind the assertions — the subjects who care about (not just care for) the objects.

Which is a long way ahead of most museums. There’s not much humanity on display in the Getty’s recently launched interactive, The Life of Art, which is meant toencourage sustained looking at objects.

Nor, according to one recent commenter on this blog, at a (politely unnamed) museum she visited, where, to her eye 

the wall placards read like caricatures of contemporary art speak. I thought, “Who is editing this stuff?” The language was so dense and impossible to understand ... it was almost embarrassing if it wasn't so tragic—and I was a big fan of the show!

By the way, the point isn’t that words like “bacchanal” are over visitors heads. Most of them know full well what it means, and the rest can figure it out from the context. It’s that the choice of words reveals something about the person or people who are doing the talking. The content of a label may tell visitors something about the art or the artist, but its form conveys more basic, arguably more important information: who you are, whether you’re really talking to them, and whether you’re the kind of person they want to be talking with.

I hope the Met goes further down this road under Campbell, and that other museums take notice. I’ll post a link to his TED talk when it’s up. Meanwhile, let us know how your museum’s interpretive voice is changing. 

Thomas Campbell TED photo: James Duncan Davidson


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