Such ambitions for the Met might not sound revolutionary, especially after the kinds of grand expansions and acquisitions that more than doubled the museum’s size during the de Montebello years, leaving little room for his successor to start putting his stamp on the place.
But in two wide-ranging interviews over the last month Mr. Campbell said that he did not see it that way and that he viewed the museum’s next frontier to be less physical than philosophical and virtual: a change in the Met’s tone and public face, making it a more open and understandable museum, largely by thoroughly rethinking the way it uses technology.
“It’s not sexy and glamorous, like building a new wing,” he said, “but I think it’s a fundamental part of our responsibility to our audience.”
The response by Jed Perl in The New Republic, where he rips Campbell a new one for condescending to audiences:
Are the people who run our museums aware that their solicitude for museumgoers sounds a lot like condescension? A few weeks ago, Ford Bell, president of the American Association of Museums, explained that the Metropolitan Museum of Art “can be intimidating” for people who don’t “already know something about art and have a familiarity with the place.” Thomas Campbell, the Met’s very own director, is singing the same song. “We have to recognize that a great many of our visitors don’t know their way around and they don’t know much about art.” I realize that Campbell and Bell are well-meaning fellows. They do not want to be pegged as oblivious elitists. What they may not realize is that their ready-for-prime-time populism is another form of elitism—maybe the worst kind of elitism. When I read these remarks by Campbell and Bell I have the sneaking suspicion that they regard the museumgoing public as the little people, dumb as rocks, a blank slate with no inherent taste, insight, or sensibility. When museum people start to talk about improving the public—there is now a field known as “visitor engagement”—the unspoken message may be that administrators and bureaucrats do not really believe in the public.
And the response from Mark O'Neill in The Art Newspaper, citing Perl's article as 'typical of attacks on museums which seek to renew their relationship with society, and hence their legitimacy as public institutions.'
Happy weekend reading!