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Award Presentation/Keynote

Posted By Annemarie Sawkins, Haggerty Museum , Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Award Presentation/Keynote

A Blog by Annemarie Sawkins


How fitting that Philippe de Montebello, director emeritus of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, received the AAMC’s newly created Award for Distinguished Service named in his honor and designed by Frank Stella, an icon of American art. Though never a curator himself―Philippe served as the director of Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts for four and half years before assuming the reins of the Metropolitan which he led not only ably but with distinction for 32 years―he understands museums. They are, after all, platforms for people and ideas, places where we care for, research and present objects precisely because of what they tell us about us.

            Philippe de Montebello was the ultimate director, because he was sensitive to curators and their needs not only in the museum and galleries, but in the wider world. He was gracious, for example, in accepting the AAMC’s invitation to speak at our 10th Annual conference at which time he eloquently addressed the important role played by curators. 

            For those who love plays or masques and anti-masques in the tradition of Inigo Jones and Ben Jonson, there is one here. In the fall of 2008, the curators of the Metropolitan accomplished two major feats. First they successfully planned a tribute exhibition, with over 300 major works acquired during de Montebello’s tenure, titled The Philippe de Montebello Years Curators Celebrate Three Decades of Acquisitions, and they did it WITHOUT the director having any ideas of what was afoot. And just as curators wear many hats and play multiple roles, Philippe transitioned from award recipient to moderator without so much as a pause. Rather as he is want to do, he continues to champion a diversity of approaches and to stretch our minds by suggesting that "culture is more verbal than visual.”

            This idea served as the perfect transition to a panel titled Looking Forward Ten Years: What is the Museum of 2021? that could not have been more cleverly planned or wonderfully apropos.  In three very different talks the speakers―Paola Antonelli, Kwane Anthony Appiah and Linda Shearer―examined the role played by curators. Have you thought of yourself as a Geisha? Or the English Professor and bibliophile in Zorba the Greek who does not learn to live until he meets his antithesis? For some, curators are indeed like Geisha; entertainers, caretakers of people and objects, masters of the old, and by nature financial dependents. For Antonelli, true curators are highly conscious of the ambiguity of culture and the constant need to work with objects to ultimately deal with the issues of today. These, it was recognized by all, are expansive and include environmental responsibility (sustainability) and the sheer fact that because "history mirrors the present” our work is as vital as ever.

            Like Antonelli, Kwane Anthony Appiah turned to the past to address the topic of the panel, the museum of 2021. After reminding us of the role of museums in collecting objects, researching them and then sharing that information, he gave us an anecdote related to Jacob I Bernoulli’s 1684 discoveries related to probability theory. The idea here is that random variables and events, when repeated many times, exhibit certain patterns, which can be studied and predicted. His specific example was the 1635 expansion of British mail services from a strictly royal system to one that was more public. From this came conservations about logistics and new thoughts and approaches. For Appiah, the future of museums is tied to new media and the way of doing things now and in the future will be all about "access not ownership”.

            Closing out the panel was Linda Shearer, whose vast experiences include working at a variety of museums from alternative to established and from collecting to non-collecting. Shearer sees museums of all types including Project Row Houses, which she currently directs, as by necessity needing to "reflect community”. Increasing accessibility to objects, for Shearer, includes expanding the number and type of voices either commenting on an object, as in the Label Talk model, where three faculty write about the same object, or through the exchange of ideas. As models of interpretation of the past and of the future, the panelists made clear the primacy of our work in an ever changing landscape.

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