Civilization Was a Crust


Our Daily Correspondent

Konigsburg Book Cover

From the cover of Frankweiler.

Long before museums were pandering to callow visitors bearing selfie sticks, they were trying to attract young people the old-fashioned way. Any big collection worth its salt has had some sort of children’s guide for decades now: museums encourage kids to look for dogs and cats in Dutch tavern scenes, giving them Bingo-style checklists, colorful maps, and bits of trivia. (Fact: pointillist paintings are made up of lots of little dots.)

The Met has always had an especially good kids’ program, and one indication of this is how enthusiastically—and diplomatically—they embrace the classic E. L. Konigsburg novel From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. For the uninitiated, though I suspect there are few of you: this book chronicles the exploits of the Kincaid siblings, who run away and hide out in the Metropolitan Museum. There, they sleep in a sixteenth-century bed, bathe (and fish for coins) in a fountain, and, into the bargain, solve an art-world mystery.

The author makes all this sound pretty plausible: the museum has no censors, minimal security, and an enviably cheap cafeteria. So the Met’s Frankweiler-themed written tour-guide has to bad-cop it pretty early on. “You can’t, of course, camp out here,” it says, with irritatingly adult logic, “but you can have an adventure each time you visit (and at least rest your feet if you get tired).” Quite the consolation prize.

To preempt any literal-minded juvenile outrage, it goes on to inform contemporary children, gently, of a few other modernizations. The curtained bed where Claudia sleeps, for instance, isn’t around any more, “but plenty of beds fit for royalty are.” And “although the Fountain of the Muses is no longer on display, you can see many other beautiful fountains and pools throughout the Museum.” The author knows this won’t really placate kids, and that they’re still going to attempt to run away—but the museum has to try. “If you’ve read the book, you probably saw that much has changed since Claudia and Jamie camped out here, but many wonderful works of art can always be seen,” the written tour-guide pleads. “Even though we can’t invite you to spend the night (and please don’t try on your own!), you can still have a great time during regular Museum hours.” 

The literature hastens to assure visitors that they need not be familiar with the book to enjoy such an excursion, but it’s clear the writer is fluent in Frankweiler; the enthusiasm with which he or she directs children to seek out Egyptian jewelry and Grecian urns is unpatronizing and appealing. And then there’s this wonderfully macabre bit:

While you’re still in the Egyptian galleries, find something else that caught Claudia’s fancy. She especially liked a beautiful bronze sculpture of a cat, which can be found in the left-hand corridor as you walk back from the Tomb of Perneb at the entrance to the galleries. Can you guess what this statue was used for? It’s actually a coffin and would have held a mummified cat. Cats were the sacred animals of Bastet, goddess of the household, and cat mummies were donated to temples dedicated to the goddess and buried nearby.

I urge any child—or adult—to follow the tour not just because I admire this writer’s style, but because the Met has included a reminiscence by Konigsburg herself about the book’s inspiration. It will come as no surprise to any that it’s a deeply peculiar document, dispassionate, filled with unappetizing food, and indifferent to the likability of her child characters.

The following summer, I read High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes. It relates the adventures of some children who, while being transported from their island home to England, are captured by pirates. On the open seas in the company of those pirates, the children lose their thin veneer of civilization and become piratical themselves. Shortly after reading that novel, my family went on vacation to Yellowstone National Park. One day we went on a picnic.

After buying salami and bread, chocolate milk and paper cups, paper plates and napkins, and potato chips and pickles, we got into the car and drove and drove but could not find a picnic table. So when we came to a clearing in the woods, I suggested that we eat there. We all crouched slightly above the ground and spread out our meal. Then the complaints began. The chocolate milk was getting warm, and there were ants all over everything, and the sun was melting the icing on the cupcakes. This was hardly roughing it, and yet my small group could think of nothing but the discomfort.

Unlike the children in the novel I had read, my children could never become barbarians even if they were captured by pirates. Civilization was not a veneer to them; it was a crust. If they ever wanted to run away, where would they go? Certainly, they would never consider a place less civilized than their suburban home. They would want all those conveniences plus a few extra dashes of luxury. Probably, they wouldn’t consider a place even a smidgen less elegant than The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.