Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Important Search for New Leadership

Oh, you ask, is this another blog post about Hillary, tears, polls, and pundits?

No, it’s not. My neighbors have that very well covered, particularly Mannion, Swift, and Wolcott.

Someone's got to handle the other big page-one news yesterday, that Phillippe de Montebello is retiring. Now that’s something I know something about.

He became director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art when I was in high school. My parents, particularly my mother, were avid museumgoers, and so even from the burbs, we went regularly.

And it was during one of those many visits that I picked up information about a high school apprentice program, run by a woman named Enid Ruben. My close high school friend Della and I both applied, and after three sets of interviews!, we were both accepted. My assignment was to help out in the Watson Library, which is the library only for the staff and well-credentialed graduate students or scholars who request admittance.

It was an exciting, heady summer for budding city girls. The Met is small city unto itself, and working there as a teenager made me feel like Orwell with a better gig.

When I got to college a few years later, studying Johnson’s Rasselas with Paul Fussell put some of that summer of my Met into perspective. Inspired by Fussell’s droll love of Johnson, I wrote a play about it.

Rasselas at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Scene: The Catalog Department, The Watson Library, the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 10:30 on a July morning


PAM: 27, short wavy hair, wide bland eyes; dress Preppy
KATRINA: Russian, very soft-spoken
MRS. PROSCH: went to Vassar; Prosch-house is in Princeton
MRS. ULSTER: director of the library
MRS. GALASKA: kind, congenial German woman
PAT: career librarian; also self-appointed art critic by virtue of the building in which she works
MICHELLE: petite French woman; gestures ardently
M.A.: 16 year-old museum apprentice

Act I

Phone rings.

PAM: Hello, Cataloging. Hello Bill . . . Sorry about this weekend, but I got the most terrific offer to go sailing on Long Island, and I had to go. Listen, the Philharmonic is playing in the park on Wednesday. Can you make it? . . .Great, wonderful. You bring the blanket, wine, and glasses, I’ll get the cheese and pate. Meet me on the stairs at five. Great, terrific. Bye.

(enter Michelle)

MICHELLE: Pam I just found the bathroom door unlocked.

PAM: Really? You mean our library staff bathroom?

MICHELLE: Yes. I really don’t understand. I was certain we had decided to keep it locked.

(Pat has been listening, now crosses the room to Pam’s desk and joins in the amazement)

PAT: Certainly, it was my understanding that at the meeting we decided to keep the staff bathroom locked because there were too many non-staff using it, instead of the public one.

(MRS. PROSCH congregates to Pam’s desk)

MRS. PROSCH: Absolutely, there’s no question. I have the memo here, signed by Mrs. Ulster, to call maintenance to have keys issued to every female staff person so we could keep the bathroom locked. As I recall, there weren’t any dissenters at the meeting. Everyone now has her own key, so I really don’t see what the issue is.

(Since the open discussion began, M.A. has been listening, while filing, as she listens to all office discussions in order to learn about the art world and the workings of a world-class institution. Unfortunately, because of Mrs. Prosch’s over-emphasizing, M.A. allows a muffled laugh to escape.)

PAM (glaring at M.A. and speaking in an annoyed tone): “Can we help you, M.A.?”

M.A.: No, eh, no, not all, excuse me.

M.A. tries the laugh-into-coughing-fit ploy, but does not think it successful. She picks up the book she is working on and crosses the room to the processing shelf

(enter Mrs. Galaska)

PAM: Edith, did you know the bathroom door was unlocked?

MRS. GALASKA: Yes. I didn’t lock it last time because M.A. doesn’t have a key, and I thought we should leave it open until she has one.

KATRINA (from across the room): There is one spare key. Why don’t we lend her that for the summer?

PAM: NO. No (less harsh). We need that for visitors. I suggest . . .

PAT (interrupting) Why don’t we go into the conference room and decide what we want to do. Also, we should bring this up with Mrs. Ulster.

EXIT Pat, Pam, Mrs. Prosch, Mrs. Galaska, Katrina, and Michelle.

--Audience retires to lobby for drinks---

Act 2

Pat, Pam, Mrs. Prosch, Mrs. Galaska, Katrina, and Michelle file back in. M.A. is back at her desk.

PAM: M.A., we are going to leave the spare key in this little index box right here, so any time you need to just take it, but remember to replace it when you’re done.

M.A.: Fine Pam. Thanks.

(10 minutes late M.A. goes to the index box, take the spare key, and exits. She goes down to the staff bathroom, opens the door, makes sure no one is there, laughs and giggles, then looks very afraid.)


Johnson’s Rasselas—-the story of his Prince of Abissinia seeking to understand the roots of happiness—- explained to me why I started laughing after this scene. I had thought it was because I had preconceived ideas as to what would be important at the MMA and what would be decorum in the office, and this problem with the bathroom key smashed those preconceptions. The key problem wasn’t ludicrous just because it had to do with the lavatory, but because I could not imagine where all the non-staff females could be coming from.

As with the pyramids, “The narrowness of the chambers proves that it could afford no retreat from the enemies, and treasures might have been reposited at far less expense with equal security”; the library is not open to the public at all, and the only possible “other women” would be female curators doing research or credentialed art scholars. How many women could that be?

Johnson tells us “All power of fancy over reason is a degree of insanity.” Locking a bathroom door that is already barred to most people is, to a degree, insane. Rasselas also tells us that everyone seeks power over something or someone, even if that power is mostly in your own head, “and I sat days and night in imaginary dominion.”

“A king, whose power is unlimited,” or a library worker whose power is very limited, “is compelled to solace” or to Johnsonian insanity, “by the erection of the pyramids” or the tyranny over a 16 year old.

For while everyone else could leave the office for ambiguous reasons, it was clear where I was going and how long I was gone. I noticed that Pam kept a tally on her memo pad of how many times I went to the little green index box. It seems my visit number did not exceed her preset limit.

(Photo: Librado Romero/The New York Times)


kathleenmaher said...

M.A., did you restrain yourself? Once you noticed your visits were counted every day, did you wait until you could escape the confines and perhaps use the museum's one of the fine public facilities?
Talk about invasion of privacy! And now, every year, it seems, we're treated to reports of famous and/or powerful peoples' bathroom behavior.
How horrible life must be for those who need to play a petty martinet.

M.A.Peel said...

Kathleen, "messing with the intern" is a time-honored indoor sport. I think it was little of that, a little of actual control issues.

Neddie said...

Fascinatingly, Wonder Woman was the administrative assistant to Met President William B. Macomber in the mid-Eighties, and remembers Philippe de Montebello as a pretty sexy studmuffin.

Equally fascinatingly, in the early Seventies my father sued Macomber, then a State Dept. Undersecretary, on behalf of the American Foreign Service Association.

See how it all ties together?

M.A.Peel said...

Oooooh, Neddie, the plot thickens.