“I stepped into the cavernous atrium, enjoying the familiar rush of silence that meets Monday’s ears,” Lucy Ives writes in her new novel, Impossible Views of the World.
The speaker is Stella, a curator, and the atrium is in the fictitious Central Museum of Art in Manhattan. While the CeMArt is clearly modeled on New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, this opening will resonate with anyone who’s ever stepped into a museum – whether the MOMA, the Metropolitan, the Louvre, the Prado, or the Getty. You walk through the doors into another world, one (if you get there early enough) of silence and stillness, but also alive with the voices and mysteries of the past.
Perhaps this is why so many writers use museums as settings for their books. Museums contain myriad stories in their vast, climate-controlled, guard-protected galleries and halls. Some visitors trample through barely looking at the displays, their minds and stomachs fixed on the lunch they will reward themselves with after this dose of ‘culture.’ Others spend hours in front of a favorite drawing or statue, transfixed and transformed by their nearness to the past. Museums also warehouse the stories of the art and artifacts themselves: paintings that have witnessed wars, vessels that have changed hands countless times through the centuries. And finally, museums hold the stories of the men and women who, like Stella, work behind the scenes, for whom invaluable pieces of art and antiquity are backdrop to the present-tense drama of their daily lives.
Most of us probably first glimpsed the many lives of the museum in From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E Frankweiler, EL Konigsberg’s delightful children’s novel about a sister and brother who run away from home to the Met, and wind up solving a mystery about a possible Michelangelo. The spooky pleasure the children take in wandering the empty halls once the visitors leave and the guards lock the doors for the night is irresistible – who wouldn’t want to know what it feels like to be alone with all that art, all that history, and a full night to explore?
In fact, many people do know exactly what that feels like, though they are too busy working to do much exploring. In his oral history Museum, also set at the Met, Danny Danziger creates a portrait of what goes on behind the scenes at a major cosmopolitan museum. Danziger interviewed more than fifty staff members and key figures of the Met – everyone from the cleaners, guards, and servers to the trustees, curators, and the director himself – at the time, the imperious Philippe de Montebello. Montebello’s predecessor, Thomas Hoving, wrote a similar behind-the-scenes look at the Met, but only from one perspective: his. In Making the Mummies Dance, he describes the challenges and triumphs of his tenure.
One of the challenges of a museum director, of course, is keeping everyone, and everything, safe. This includes the monumental task of displaying priceless treasures in such a way that light, heat, and the exhalations of a million viewers don’t damage it beyond repair, while also keeping those viewers themselves safe. In Donna Tart’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Goldfinch, a terrorist attack on the Met kills several visitors and leaves a valuable painting vulnerable to snatching, which the book’s narrator does, setting the story in motion. Unlike most books about museums, in which the galleries are hallowed, near-sacred spaces of comfort and edification, in The Goldfinch the museum becomes a chamber of horrors, a temporary prison for the hero, the wonders of its art obscured by the grisly, bloody, limb-strewn aftermath of the terrorists’ bombs.
For some writers, the idea of a museum is as appealing as the physical space. In Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence, the main character creates a traveling museum of objects that belonged to his beloved before finally, after they are separated for good, turning her house into a museum dedicated to their doomed love. While writing the book, Pamuk made plans for a real Museum of Innocence in Istanbul containing objects and artifacts from the period of the novel. Though completion of the museum was delayed until after the book’s publication, it opened to the public in 2012, four years after the novel came out. Fully incorporating the theme of museum as inspiration for a novel (and vice versa), the novel The Museum of Innocence contains a ticket which can be exchanged for free admission to the actual museum.
What all these books prove is that the job of the writer and the job of the museum-goer are not so different. Both require a willingness to look deeply, patiently, and carefully. And, as many of the writers of these books reveal, what we see on the surface is only a fraction of the story.