When Philippe de Montebello (*) retired at the end of 2008 after 31 years as director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, he found himself back where he started: in the classrooms of the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University, the very school where he had earned a master’s degree more than 30 years ago.

Now teaching the history and culture of museums, Mr. de Montebello reflects on how he ended up in the academic world, how things have changed since he was a student and on arts education in general.

Q. Why did you decide to teach?

A. I always figured I would. I’ve always been a bit of a didact; now the didact is let loose. I love working with ideas and putting them together; creating narratives and what I want to impart to students. And I have to say the students at a place like this — which is one of the top schools in the country and in New York — are very bright. They know a lot. I meet with them. We talk about their papers, assignments or about their careers, and I find that extremely stimulating. And you feel good.

You feel as if you are contributing something, and in some ways there is a greater specificity of reward because a lot of it is one on one or a small cluster of people at a still impressionable age where you can inflect the discourse, maybe have some influence on their lives, their careers.

Q. How many classes do you teach?

A. I taught a lecture in the spring/fall, which basically means 14 weeks, a two-hour lecture every week. It’s a huge amount of work and preparation and it was entitled “The Meaning of Museums,” about the ideas behind the formation of museums starting all the way from antiquity through the Age of Enlightenment into the 19th century. I barely touched the 20th century.

It’s a fascinating story, obviously the most simplistic way with the opening up of private collections or princely collections to a broader and broader public, until you reach the point where collections are formed from the start for the public. It all begins with sanctuaries in ancient Greece and treasuries in medieval Europe, and earlier even with libraries.

And this spring I’m actually teaching a colloquium, which is like a seminar with about a dozen students and another dozen auditors about issues to do with cultural property in which I figure I am an unwitting expert. And I’ve invited a number of people to teach with me so that the students get not only one point of view.

And I’ve told them from the start if you violently disagree with me and you do it in a very well-researched and well-written paper, you’ll get an A. I’m not here to tell my collecting views versus archaeologists’.

So next Tuesday I have Brian Rose, the head of the Archaeological Institute of America, coming in. I have Sir John Boardman, who is the great classicist from Oxford, talking about the Parthenon. I’ve also asked Hugh Eakin because he’s written a lot about the subject and knows the press.

I’ve always been puzzled at the rapidity and the eagerness of the press to embrace the anticollecting lobby. The press has been for the archaeologists and for the source countries and against museums. So I want Eakin to speak about this and tell us why.

Q. You were a student here. How has teaching changed?

A. There’s no question it has become more theoretical: more looking at the anthropology, the sociology, the economics surrounding art history. But the institute, like Columbia, is still one of the graduate schools that, while it does some of the theoretical teaching, is still a place where connoisseurship is not the “C” word; where it is taught; where there is a fair amount of object-based teaching; where professors cross the street and take their students to the Met. On the other hand, the whole field, if you start looking across the United States, has become very theoretical.

Q. Why do you think that is?

A. I think a lot of it may have to do with postmodernism and a kind of P.C. mentality of relativism; increasingly there are a lot of people in the academic world who have trouble with the masterpiece, with the concept of good, better, best. I don’t know why. I think it’s egalitarianism. But it’s changing back. My very presence here now teaching the history and culture of museums is an indication of this.

Q. How have the students changed?

A. I’ve given a million public lectures in the last 35 years, but I have really not taught students. So, for me, I really have no basis of comparison. I would say they’re highly focused, perhaps more than we were. And they’re already quite specialized. In a way they don’t have quite the breadth, the same frame of reference as their elders. At the same time they know certain defined subjects in depth.

Q. Are a lot of your students looking to become curators?

A. More than I might have thought. And they are also influenced by their own sense of where they are likely to get a job. If you are studying Byzantine or ancient subjects, older things, you are less likely to find something in museums.

Q. Do you find the role of the museum curator broader than it once was?

A. Yes. I’ve watched it evolve and change in 30 years when I was at the Met. Curators are much more involved in their own budgeting for exhibitions and working more closely with editorial departments on books and catalogs, with development, helping with fund-raising, which I never did as a young curator. Well, it’s a logical thing. Put yourself in the donor’s shoes. You’re more likely to give if the presentation is made by a curator who brings the knowledge and expresses it with passion.

Q. Do you find that graduate students are more sophisticated or hoping to get something different out of school?

A. They’re more sophisticated in the sense that they are older than when I was a student. I am not a sociologist so I can’t explain the phenomenon. It may have something to do with the economy; maybe they couldn’t afford the school before. I don’t know. They tend to have a more interesting curriculum vitae. I didn’t have a curriculum vitae — Harvard, N.Y.U., that was my curriculum vitae, and two years in the Army. Now they’ve been on fellowships in Cairo. They have worked at Christie’s or Sotheby’s or in a museum. They’ve traveled more.

Q. Are museums making more of an impact educationally? A. To me, one of the great challenges of the future is the absence of a general education or humanistic education, so little of which is provided by the schools and so much of which is necessary to create the audiences of the future because the audiences for art museums by definition are going to come from the better educated, more humanistically inclined people in our population.

And the difficulty is that museums can do just so much. They simply cannot function in lieu of the schools. You can provide the programs but the programs museums tend to provide are for people who come to the museum, programs for those already in the chorus.

While materials are created now for teachers, museums can establish a stronger presence maybe through the Internet or some other relationships with universities and with schools. I’m not talking specifically or exclusively about art education. I’m talking about the curriculum with more literature, more history and, of course, also art. The broad range of the humanities need to be taught along with obvious notions of art history, with the artists, the monuments, the architecture.

Q. Do you find that curators these days seem less specialized and more connected to other parts of the museum?

A. You simply can no longer balkanize the institution. Art and artists are not isolated. They travel, they experience multiple influences, across borders, across time.

There was an era when it was easier to get a loan from the British Museum than from your colleague down the hall. Let me tell you it happens, but a lot less. You’ve got to be able to show the continuity, the breadth, the interconnections from within the collections, but that’s a relatively new thing. It used to be much harder to get different departments to work together on a project.

At the Met, we did it in a small way. For example, Chinese ceramics were shown with Iranian metalwork, showing that one influenced the other. Since both were in the collection the curators talked and put it together. If you’re going to do thematic shows, where it’s not the artist or the school, but the iconography or kind of art which is represented, then it can work.

If, for example, you’re doing an exhibition on tea cups, you can’t just have Meissen tea cups, unless you’re doing a Meissen show. So you’re going to show a tea cup from Japan, one from China, one from Germany, one from France.

Q. What has been your biggest surprise as a teacher?

A. A double surprise: It’s even more rewarding and pleasurable than I thought. But it’s also even harder than I thought. If you’re conscientious and you are dealing with young minds and people who really pay attention to what you say, not that they view it as the Bible, but you cannot be flippant. You have to realize that everything you say has to be properly documented, has to be well researched, because they will take it very seriously as you’re the teacher and they’re the student. Yet, that sense of accountability — you have to deliver the best that you can — is what is ultimately the most satisfying.

Philippe de Montebello
Fiske Kimball Professor in the History and Culture of Museums,
Institute of Fine Arts, New York University

Philippe de Montebello, the first-ever Director Emeritus of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, is recognized throughout the world as one of the field's most influential and articulate champions of integrity, authority, education, and public access. In December, 2008 he retired after 32 years as the longest-serving director in the Metropolitan Museum’s nearly 140-year-long history.

In March of 2009, President Obama awarded him the National Medal of the Humanities, citing his “vision in bringing great art to an international public, his leadership in revitalizing the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and for fostering art appreciation among people of all ages." In 2003 President Bush awarded him The National Medal of Arts, noting that by "promoting widereaching programs that bring art to the American people, he has helped to preserve, protect, and present the cultural and artistic heritage of our world." Mr. de Montebello is the fourth
person ever to have received both the U.S. National Medal of the Arts and the National Medal of the Humanities.

Under his leadership the Metropolitan Museum nearly doubled in size, vastly increasing its exhibition space. The Met also acquired significant collections and individual masterpieces, mounted acclaimed international loan exhibitions, developed wide-reaching educational programs, and reinstalled much of its permanent collections in new and refurbished galleries. In fall 2008 the curators of the institution paid tribute to Mr. de Montebello’s tenure by mounting an unprecedented tribute exhibition of some 300 major works that entered the collections under his leadership, entitled The Philippe de Montebello Years: Curators Celebrate Three Decades of Acquisitions.

Following his retirement, Mr. de Montebello became the first scholar in residence at the Prado Museum in Madrid, where he is currently an honorary member of the Board. In 2008, he also joined the Board of Trustees of the Musée d'Orsay in Paris. In the fall of 2009, Mr. de Montebello launched a new academic career as the first Fiske Kimball Professor in the History and Culture of Museums at the Institute of Fine Arts of New York University and as a special advisor for NYU’s Abu Dhabi campus. He is currently co-host with Paula Zahn of the WNET/PBS weekly culture series SundayArts, and serves as Special Advisor to the Leon Levy Foundation. He continues to lecture throughout the world on art, museums, and other cultural matters.

Mr. de Montebello was born in Paris and received his early education in France. He graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University and received a master’s degree in art history from New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts. With the exception of four and a half years as director of Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts, he has spent his entire career at the Metropolitan. His numerous international honors include the Officier de la Légion d'Honneur; the Amigos delMuseo del Prado Prize; and Knight Commander, Pontifical Order of St. Gregory the Great. He has received a number of honorary degrees, notably from Harvard University, Dartmouth College, and New York University.

Long the narrator of the Museum's Audio Guide programming—which now features a“Selections from the Director Emeritus” tour that he recorded in five of the eight different languages offered—Mr. de Montebello's has become one of the most instantly recognizable and respected voices in the cultural world.

Originele bio
Friday, February 10, 2012