“Claudia knew that she could never pull off the old-fashioned kind of running away. That is, running away in the heat of anger with a knapsack on her back. She didn’t like discomfort; even picnics were untidy and inconvenient: all those insects and the sun melting the icing on the cupcakes. Therefore, she decided that her leaving home would not just be running from somewhere but would be running to somewhere. To a large place, a comfortable place, an indoor place, and preferably a beautiful place. And that’s why she decided upon the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.”
E. L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler has been one of my favorite books since elementary school. I reread it from time to time, and it holds up, even though Claudia and Jamie manage to run away from home with less than $30 between them and make it to NYC from Connecticut no problem. This book influenced me in two ways: it made me realize how awesome museums are, especially at night, and it helped teach me that what makes art important is the stories we tell (or don’t tell…) about it.
My recent tour of the Metropolitan Museum of Art with Museum Hack did exactly the same thing, which of course means I had an awesome time.
Museum Hack contacted me a while back about doing a VIP tour, and while I’d seen some other blog posts about them, I wasn’t totally sure what to expect. I brought a friend who was visiting from out of town with me on a Saturday evening, just before 6 p.m. Saturday night is a fun time to go to the Met as Fridays and Saturdays are the only days the Met is open till 9 PM and it feels special to be there as it’s getting dark outside. We made our donation, got our tickets, and met our group in the main hall of the museum.
After we were given our shiny silver VIP name badges and listened to a story about the lobby over an audio guide, our tour started! We got a brief (and hilarious) history of the museum from our tour guides, Kate and Jen, and then headed off in search of some great stories.
I knew that sculptures used to be painted, but did you know that sometimes those hollowed out eyes ockets were filled in with colorful eyes?
Or that the founder and first curator of the Arms and Armory department, Dr. Bashford Dean, is the only person to have concurrently held positions at the Met and the American Museum of Natural History, just across Central Park? His other field: ichthyology.
This Picasso piece was accidentally damaged by a visitor several years ago — and its value went up, because now there is a story attached to it. It’s not just a sort of dark, not that attractive paining — it’s that Picasso painting that someone’s elbow went through.
The American Wing Courtyard is both beautiful and a little weird. The light is gorgeous, due to the glass ceiling, and there’s this facade here and a bunch of statues that look like they could be Greek or Roman, but, no, we’re in the American Wing. Our guides pointed out that no other major museum has an American Wing — guess that’s a commentary on what the rest of the world thinks about our art! But they also pointed out that even the Met puts its American art next to the cafe — not the most prestigious location!
Part of the fun of the Museum Hack tour was being encouraged to interact — with each other, and with the art. In the courtyard, we were told to pick a statue that we identified with (or, you know, just liked a lot), and posed with it. I picked this angel (but sorry, you can’t see my photo with it — it’s a Polaroid souvenir they gave us at the end of the visit!).
I said a quick hello to George Washington as I passed, humming Hamilton lyrics to myself….
And was thrilled when we ended up in the Temple of Dendur (immortalized in one of my favorite movies, When Harry Met Sally), just before closing. As you saw from the picture at the beginning of my post it was beautifully lit and we wandered around with our audio guides while our actual guide spoke to us through the headphones about how the temple came to be here at the Met. I won’t give away the whole story…
…but I will tell you it has something to do with Jackie Kennedy and the fact that she owned an apartment in the building you can see in the photo below…
My feet were tired by the time we left the museum at 9 PM, but I had so much fun learning about different works of art, and about the history of the museum. Hearing all these stories (and many, many more) really made the museum’s collection come into focus. It’s huge, and it can be overwhelming — I know when I bring visitors, I usually show them the same few parts of the museum, because exploring new rooms can be intimidating.
But Museum Hack had a great approach, and our guides offered up some advice, which they stole from Tracy Chevalier, the author of Girl with a Pearl Earring: When you walk into a room at a museum, do a quick scan and find the piece that captures your attention first. You can read about it, but also, tell yourself a story about what you think is going on in the piece, or even what its history is. You’ll engage more deeply if you tell stories than if you try to take in everything.
So even if I can’t exactly run away to the Met, I can say I learned some special stories about some amazing works of art. Thanks, Museum Hack, for the opportunity to visit the Met together! I had a wonderful time, and I hope to do another of your tours soon!
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