Art TED Talks

Breaking down the walls of the museum: Thomas P. Campbell at TED2012

Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Thomas P. Campbell, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, starts his TEDTalk by telling a story of the first time he took an art course. It was taught by Pietro, an “irrascible Italian, who drank and swore much too much.” At one point he projected a very graphic image on a wall, with many figures of wine and cavorting, and asked them what it was. Campbell said it was a “bacchanal.” His teacher responded, “You fucking bookworm. It’s a fucking orgy.” He’s tried to bring that sense to his curation.

His own eureka moment came when he was studying the art of the courts of modern Europe, which was generally discussed in terms of the paintings. But in everything he read, there were descriptions of the tapestries, and for good reason: They were portable. “You could transform a cold, dank interior into a warm setting.” They allowed the rules to associate themselves with heroes and settings of their choosing.

They were also fantastically expensive, and were a potent form of propaganda.

He became a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and, “I saw the Met as one of the few places where I could organize exhibitions.” In 1996 he got the go-ahead for an exhibition of tapestries in 2002. They had to think hard about how to present such an esoteric subject, and some staff thought it would be a bomb, but it was huge. He’s not showing images of the exhibit here at TED because the exhibition was designed to be an experience. He then describes the feeling of walking into a room with towering pieces of cloth, decorated with courts and battles and the highest fashion.

When he took his son’s school class (he was then 8), the thing that caught their attention was a small bit of a dog pooping. It was that detail that brought home for them that this was a relic of a past world. “Through this experience that could only be experience in a museum, I’d opened up the eyes of my audience to the beauty of this lost medium.”

He’s now the director of the musuem, and is passionate about the entirety of the work of a curator. In an age of “just-add-water expertise,” he believes that a curator can provide much more context and vivacity to an experience.

An amazing example was the Alexander McQueen exhibit. The curator, Andrew Bolton, worked closely with McQueen’s people and gained their trust. To present the exhibit true to McQueen’s vision, they ripped down galleries to create reconstructions of his first studio and a hall of mirrors. It was not a normal experience of museumgoing. “It could have been a train-wreck.” But because of the work of the curator it became an incredible, visceral, emotive experience.

Collections, individual objects, can also have that power. “It’s in our galleries that we can unpack the civilizations, the cultures, that we are seeing the current manifestations of.” Before 9/11, most Americans didn’t know much about the Islamic world. “Now, in our galleries, we show 14 centuries of development of different Islamic cultures across a vast geographic spread.”

The great hall of the Met is one of the great portals of the world. From there you can walk in any direction into almost every culture. Some visitors are comfortable, but some are not, they feel it’s elitist. He’s working to break down that feeling of elitism.

Imagine going in to a museum and seeing that scene his teacher Pietro showed, with flowing wine and various states of undress. “Our scholarship can tell us that this is a bacchanal. But if we’re doing our job right, and you’ve checked the jargon at the front door. Trust your instinct. You know it’s an orgy.”