Anyone who’s worked somewhere for a quarter of a century has stories to tell. But when that place is New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and when the storyteller has the voice, imagination, insights and talent of Christine Coulson, it’s time to take notice. Her novel, Metropolitan Stories, published by Other Press will be out on October 8th.
Just how many stories can one place hold? If it’s The Met, all of history’s, along with some fascinating ones from right now. Coulson weaves together a collection of related vignettes into a novel that creates a portrait not unlike those on the museum’s walls. Each says something on the surface, but each also rewards slow, thoughtful consideration.
The word curator is derived from the Latin curare, to care for. The first chapter “We” expresses what drives many of the more than 2,000 individuals who do just that, taking care of objects – keeping them intact and free of damage, studying them and unlocking their secrets. But they also, Coulson shows us, care about the artworks, deeply and emotionally. “We dream of chalices and Rothkos, African masks and twisting Berninis unfolding in our minds,” she confesses. Her stories reveal how guards and maintenance people, conservators, benefactors, visitors (even ghostly ones), and more protect, cherish, adore and interact with art.
Coulson’s stories often spin off into magical realism in surprising and enchanting ways, as information dances with imagination. The provenance of a chair in a period room starts a story, then Coulson endows the piece of furniture with memories and desires, having it express longing to feel once again the touch and weight of human life.
In “Musing” she imagines a fictional director searching for a corporeal muse to accompany him to a meeting with designer Karl Lagerfeld, who’s bringing his own. The setup gives Coulson a chance to display her knowledge of the Met’s treasures, from ancient Greece to drawings and prints (deemed not colorful enough to be a muse). It’s lighthearted and engaging, and one can imagine readers searching out the works she mentions on their next visit.
In “Gift Man” a major collection is being offered. How will the museum snag it? A photo shoot, all about flattery, ego, vanity, art and artlessness offers a glimpse into the realities of amassing a collection of almost two million objects. Illicit liaisons between guards; lavish dinner parties overflowing with champagne, billionaires, employees, trustees, donors, and volunteers; and visitors who both find and lose themselves in the galleries come together to paint a picture of the seen and unseen lives of the museum, all brought to life through Coulson’s inspired prose.
A night watchman with the “curious ability to transfer the sentiment of the Met’s art to his own soul” feels what the subjects of paintings feel, even hearing their conversations and complaints. A visitor to the Medieval Hall reflects on it as “a cool cave at the building’s center, like the lungs of a giant whale.” A lonely donor finds love in a ghostly visitation in the Temple of Dendur. As with any collection, different stories will appeal to different readers. My favorite, which she kept for last, was “Papercuts” with layer upon layer of invention folded into one fantastic tale.
Metropolitan Stories is a beautifully written, charming book about art and those who love it. Surprising in its perspective, delightful in its daring, it will enchant those who know the Met well and entice those who don’t yet.
Coulson will be presenting the book in a series of discussions, including one October 16th in the museum’s Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium in a conversation with Isaac Mizrahi. On October 21, she’ll be joined in conversation by Senior Curator for The Met Cloisters, Dr. Barbara Drake Boehm, at the St. James Episcopal Church, in Montclair, NJ. A full listing of tour stops can be found on the publisher’s website.
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