In honor of the Metropolitan Museum’s birthday, I’d like to suggest a fun weekend read: Thomas Hoving’s Making the Mummies Dance: Inside the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Hoving, who died in 2009, became the Met’s director in 1967, and in his decade-long tenure he made the museum the world-class institution (and moneymaker) it is today, influencing the whole industry in the process. It was Hoving who created the Fifth Avenue plaza, the set of shallow steps that lead up to the museum’s doors, and the big banners that announce exhibitions. He added gift shops and splashy special exhibitions, courted donors like crazy, and expanded the physical space into Central Park—facing opposition all the way.
Hoving’s biggest innovation, though, was his approach to acquisition: rather than build up a deep, conservative collection of small pieces, he decided to splurge on big-ticket masterpieces from all over the world. As a result, the Met is now home to such pieces as Velázquez’s Portrait of Juan de Pareja and the Temple of Dendur, and since his time, directors have followed this model.
Making the Mummies Dance was a best seller when it came out in 1993, and for good reason—this is no stuffy tale of boardrooms and civic planning. It’s a great example of what might be called the institutional memoir (a genre that also includes Joseph Volpe’s The Toughest Show on Earth and just about any book by a former politician): an insider’s look into the workings of a world, with just enough personal pettiness, score-settling, self-justification, and grandiosity to make it juicy.
Hoving gives us all of this. We meet jealous board members and conniving local politicians, wacky millionaires and difficult foreign curators. There’s all kinds of double-dealing and back-biting and resentment. And clearly, he loves every minute of it: the politics and the courting and the publicity and all the other things that make jobs like this look so awful to most of us. Hoving is a cheerfully unreconstructed egoist—you can easily imagine how infuriating he must have been to his numerous enemies—but a very charming one, with enough self-deprecation that you really enjoy his company.
Indeed, if there’s one real reason this book is so enjoyable—as interesting as the museum stuff is, and the art talk, and the gossip—it’s that we get to see someone doing work he loves. That’s inspiring. Here’s how the book ends, at his goodbye party:
The disasters, we all agreed, had been only forty-nine percent of the time. And most of them, I had to admit, descended upon the museum when I had become faint-hearted, had compromised or toadied or had failed to be enough of a troublemaker. Yet the fifty-one percent of the accomplishments had been gratifying. With the creative energies of the trustees who had been on my side and the staff who had supported me, the most sweeping revolution in the history of art museums had taken place.
The Met, once an elitist, stiff, gray, and slightly moribund entity, came alive. The mummies did dance.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.