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Book Review: Museum: Behind the Scenes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art by Danny Danziger

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It's a rare and wonderful thing when you find a book which is notable for both its content and its craft. In Museum: Behind the Scenes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, journalist Danny Danziger not only presents an in depth look at an intriguing American institution, but he does so in a manner which is simply breathtaking.

The artful writing (get it?) in this book makes me want to stand on a chair screaming This! This is great journalism! The book records the result of 49 interviews Danziger conducted with all manner of people who work at the Met. There's a waitress, a janitor, several curators, trustees, and on up to the director and CEO, the magnificently named Philippe de Montebello, who at one point says, "I am the Met." The breadth of points of view alone is worth applause, as well as the fact that the book lacks a hierarchical structure. There is no caste-like ordering of the interviews. Instead, they are arranged alphabetically by last name, creating a prismatic effect for the reader as he or she develops an understanding of the museum. What really gets me up on the furniture, waving my paperback about, however, is the writing.

I can't point to one exemplary interview or even a sentence to illustrate Danziger's prowess because what makes this book worth study is an absence. In the whole of the 265 pages, Danziger speaks with his own voice the sparest handful of times. Instead, each chapter, each interview, is told through the voice of the interviewee. Danziger, as journalist and interviewer, is removed from his own book. He is the wizard, hiding behind a screen of words, letting the subjects tell their own stories. It's more than smoke and mirrors, though. Each person featured has a unique and identifiable voice. The author manages to capture the individual essence of each Met employee without turning them into caricatures. Indeed, the narratives are so authentic it becomes hard to imagine Danziger acting as more than a simple copyist. Then again, one of the marks of greatness is making the powerfully difficult seem absurdly easy.

It would have been a relatively straightforward process to research and write a history of the Met. There's certainly plenty of material, and doing it that way, I've no doubt, would have produced some intriguing characters. It may have even been a good book, but it wouldn't have done the museum justice. After the Louvre, the Met is the largest museum in the world, with 19 distinct departments overseeing more than two million works of art. That's an overwhelming scope to cover when looked at for even a single day, forget about writing a history. What Danziger does in this book is create a snapshot of the museum in the first decade of the 21st century, as remembered by the people who bring it to life. In reading their thoughts and reflections, what becomes clear is that the museum exists before all else. It was there before the speakers entered and will exist long after they have left. The Met endures. With echo after echo of that sentiment, the book takes on a timeless, authoritative quality.

With one or two exceptions, I enjoyed every interview in Museum and found that they each added something interesting to the overall picture. Not all the people featured are necessarily sympathetic characters, but I think there has to be a certain amount of ego in a place like the Met. That said, there were chapters which stuck with me beyond the reading. I loved John Barelli, the Bronx-born chief security officer who says, "In the security business there are few places that are more important than this to secure," and Herbert M. Moskowitz, the chief registrar who mixes a wonderful sense of awe with the expertise required to bring in artifacts from around the world. In contrast, there are also people like George Cuesta, a maintainer in the plumbing shop who talks more about his church than he does about the museum. As passionate and dedicated to the institution as many people are in the book, it's refreshing to see that others simply work there. Like the world at large, it takes all sorts to keep the place going, and there's nothing wrong with that.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art is a wonderful place. Its cultural significance and the importance of the materials it safeguards is unparalleled in the Western Hemisphere. But it's also a building which must be fixed and secured, cleaned and opened for business. Museum: Behind the Scenes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art brings that all into lively clarity, letting the reader stand amidst this crossroads of humanity and history for a private tour.

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About Chris Bancells