Archive for August, 2009

Museum Life: Mad Men and the Met

August 17, 2009 Leave a comment

I love it when museums are referenced on television. Last night it happened when I was watching the season premiere of Mad Men on AMC. Mr. corporate climber Pete Campbell (played by Vincent Kartheiser) gets news of a promotion and runs to have his “girl” get his wife Trudy (played by Alison Brie) on the phone.  Trudy is thrilled that her man’s ambitions are being realized, but needs to rush along because she is hosting a luncheon at their home  for the docent council from the Metropolitan Museum.

Docent Trudy

Docent Trudy

The shot then scans the room and we see well-heeled ladies waiting patiently. When Pete tells Trudy he forgot to ask if he is getting a raise, Trudy says that is noble and proves you don’t need money to be fulfilled. Pete responds with something like “don’t let the ladies from the Met hear that”. In one quick scene we get the message that being a docent  is woman’s work, is proper for the wife of a young exec and implies money and prestige.

The word docent means university lecturer in most countries. It is used in the U.S. to mean a trained educator that provides information and/or conducts research on a museum collection. The role can provide a social network as referenced on Mad Men. Other motivations include love for a topic, the desire to teach, or a way to become part of the museum profession. Docents are usually volunteers (so having another source of cash definitely helps) and still often women.  But there are also many men and age groups from teens to retired that provide this public face for museums worldwide. 

Today the Met has 11 options for docent service. If your application is accepted, you go through a year of training before having a place in the rotation. Required commitment varies widely across museums, but being a docent is a great experience. There is nothing like seeing the “a-ha” or “really?” looks on people’s faces as they learn something new or stump you with a tough question.  If you want a great way to give back to your community, contact your favorite museum and join the part of museum life cool enough to be mentioned on Mad Men 🙂

The Met Docent Program:

Mad Men Yourself-seriously, try it!!

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Museum Life: Cocktails with King Tut

August 16, 2009 Leave a comment

He’s baaack.  King Tut has arrived once again in San Francisco at the de Young Museum now through March 28, 2010 .  And to quote Museum Director John Buchanan, “he’s bigger and this time he brought his family”! Tutankahum and the Golden Age of the Pharoaohs has over 130 artifacts, some of which have not been exhibited previously.

Coffinette for the viscera of Tutankhamun (detail)

Coffinette for the viscera of Tutankhamun (detail)

I was one of the few hundred that attended a pre-opening black tie dinner in June.  This is museum life on the big dollar  urban end of the spectrum. Valet parking- check. Cocktails at 7:00- check. Fabulous dinner- of course- it’s San Francisco.  I am someone who has no objection to museums being the site of parties, especially for people who might not otherwise set foot  through the doors. But I was determined to look for meaning in this occasion.

We began with cocktails and appetizers, followed by a tour through the exhibition which encompasses four very dark galleries with minimal text or interpretation. This is very much an art museum approach to history in which the objects are shown more for their aesthetic qualities than for their context. The most effective interpretive elements are a platform with images projected that show the layers within a tomb and large text with excerpts from Howard Carter’s field notes. The audio tour is narrated by Egyptain born Omar Sharif, and adds only slightly more detail than the labels.

We then moved to the candlelight dinner held in a tented sculpture garden complete with Egyptian inspired linens and hanging lamps. Peach and cream roses were on each table, as well as perfectly placed name cards. We had a four color gloss program and menu which included a chocolate pyramid for dessert and a Ghiradelli King Tut chocolate memento….

The big draw was Zahi Hawass, an archaeologist and Egypt’s Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities. Part showman, always the subject of debate, he knows how to work the PR angle as well as anyone. He talked about being instrumental in getting the first Tut show at the de Young 30 years ago. He recounted President Obama’s recent 90 minute tour with him through the pyramids, including a comment that Obama found an hieroglyph of a man with big ears and said “I look like this man”. He said two people would bring Egypt and the U.S. together- King Tut and Obama. He worked hard to build suspense regarding current research- promising new announcements regarding King Tut’s lineage at future press conferences in Egypt, New York and San Francisco. Zahi also is on the quest to find the tomb of the woman he fell in love with at 16– Cleopatra. He reminded us he does not live in our world, but in the world of the ancients….. then he quickly left to open the competing exhibition in Indiana. The program ended with a  selection from Aida performed by two members of the San Francisco Opera . In a city that loves its opera, it made sense to pay homage to the work orignally perfomed in Cairo in 1871.

This exhibition is ripe for the debate over the “blockbuster” factor in the cultural scene. The National Geographic stamp is of course all over this show. Huge graphics, high def images and video are incorporated. Does it cheapen the experience? Have museums blurred the lines between education and entertainment too much in hopes of increasing numbers? Corporate sponsors such as Northern Trust, private donors, major retail and high ticket prices side, the risk that the show might not break even in these economic times is very real.

I did enjoy wearing a long dress and eating great food. The artifacts are truly spectacular but I didn’t leave with any new knowledge about Egypt or the boy prince. I can’t help but debate the necessity for such events. Do donors demand private access? Do they give more gifts to gain it? Does the event publicity help? Museum work can be very conservative… this is one of the traditions that is rarely questioned. In a major city, perhaps museum life is just part of social life.

Check out the website where you can see some of the pieces and send an e card,  but make the time to go in person as well and let me know what you think. At the very least buy a catalog or your own replica King Tut mask….

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