Thomas Hoving, Karl Katz and the Worth of Museums

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I’ve never thought I could be a great museum director. I lack social panache, but embrace my eccentricities. One man who was a great museum director is Thomas Hoving. I love Hoving, Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art from 1967 to 1977. He was not always right, graceful or even polite (oh, how I value politeness), but he was a dynamo made endearing by his forthright narratives of his time at the Met in his memoir Making the Mummies Dance (and even about his very personal life in a series he did for Artnet, Artful Tom). I found it entertaining and, above all, honest (brutally). He is responsible for the large banners hung on the museum’s facade advertising current exhibitions, for the acquisition of the Temple of Dendur and for pioneering the “blockbuster” show, of which (despite its shortcomings in the eyes of some museum folks) I am a fan. He also called for the much-needed renovation and expansion of the Met (eventually, the museum would double in size). The ivory-colored stone inside was dirty, and entire collections, such as musical instruments and Islamic art were stored away and ignored. Patrons even had to enter from a doorway (before the addition of the wide staircase in front) called the “doghouse,” hoping not to be run over crossing the driveway in front.

Lately, I’ve been going back through the book to pull out everything I can about the Met’s Master Architectural plan for a paper I’m writing in my Museum Administration class (I might even go into administration, being passionate about happy, productive work environments, but we’ll see). It was a fight. The upper-middle-class of New York City came out in force to oppose the expansion of the Met into the park, and the Parks Commissioner, who could grant the Met approval for the project, called for public hearings. I suppose I could dedicate this blog post to the man at one of the several hearings who finally turned things around into the Met’s favor. Thinking he would be on their side, Parks asked Karl Katz, Director of the Jewish Museum in New York City and the National Museum of Israel to speak.

I also wear another hat besides being director of the Jewish Museum here in this city. I work in another city where you can’t buy land, where land is sacred, and where every piece of that land is ancient, important, inestimable. And that is Jerusalem. I am the chief curator of the National Museum of Israel. When we were planning to build our national museum, the City Planners decided to give the museum the biggest piece of land, a part in the center of the city for the building and its expansion-a space three times the size of the room to house the Rockefeller Collection, the Lehman Collection, the temple from Egypt. Who could object to what the Met needs when in Jerusalem they have taken sacred lands and said, ‘Build a museum’? I am for the Met’s expansion plans.

Hoving said, “It was if a prophet had come down from the hills and exposed the whole hearing-the petty controversy-as nonsense, something hardly worth the attention of aware and intelligent human beings.”

Foranyone who loves museums and believes in their worth, I thought this was incredibly inspiring.

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