Urbanities

Roger Starr
The Hidden Rooms Behind Museum Displays
Spring 1995

Every important museum has a front room and a back room. The front room, with everything arranged and explained, is the one that visitors see. But the back room arouses my curiosity. That's where experts study, care for, and make sense of the objects in the collection, helping to determine which pieces are worthy of being displayed. On the relationship between the front room and the knowledge-enlarging back room a museum's value and prestige depend.

New York City's museums are world-renowned, of course, and key to this renown are back rooms that rank with the city's universities as educational institutions, generating and diffusing knowledge. I decided to explore the back rooms of two of New York's greatest museums—though at different ends of the museum spectrum—to see how they do it.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, more than 100 years old, defines art broadly: painting, sculpture, and architecture, but also arms and armor, pottery, furniture, jewelry, silverware, costume, and musical instruments. A visitor to the gallery of musical instruments, nestled between the galleries

of European painting and American art, has no trouble recognizing the musical instruments on display as works of art: aside from the music they make, they provide another deep satisfaction to the aesthetic sense in, for instance, the artistry that melds a complex of curves into the simplicity of a classic violin's structure.

To walk through the gallery is to experience a new understanding of the process of cultural and technological evolution. The visitor starts at a collection of Asian, primarily Indian, plucked-string instruments including vinas, which were invented at least 1,500 years ago, although the examples in the museum are only about 200 years old. Still widely played in the East, the vina consists of a long, hollow, fretted stick along which the strings are stretched. One, two, or three gourds attached to the stick represent an early effort to achieve the kind of resonance that a violin's hollow body produces.

If one walks to the other end of the gallery and looks at the Stradivari and Amati violins on display in a glass case, it seems inconceivable that they could have descended from these early stringed instruments of the East. But the museum has a fascinating collection of stringed instruments showing the steps by which the early Eastern examples evolved into the peerless violins that the Amati, Guarneri, and Stradivari families produced in Italy from the sixteenth to the early eighteenth centuries. They developed from other types of bowed instruments, like the viola da gamba that was held between or on the knees. Those instruments in turn descended from a long line of plucked instruments, some harp-like, that rested in a supine rather than upright position, others handheld, the ancestors of lutes, mandolins, and guitars. Many of these instruments are elaborately decorated, sometimes with marquetry in wood or ivory, sometimes even with painting.

Violin innovation practically stopped after the passing of the last of the classic Italian and German makers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. They had achieved the pinnacle of evolution. Our contemporaries, turning in another direction, developed mechanical and then electronic ways to make the music of violinists audible to multitudes. Yet no one would claim that listening to the Kreutzer sonata on the stereo at home matches the social experience of sitting in an auditorium (preferably a small one) and not only hearing the music and sensing the reaction of others around, but being enthralled by the occasional flash of light on the violin itself, the movement of the player's arms and upper body, the perfectly contrived conjunction of the mobile bow and the nearly motionless violin.

The Metropolitan Museum understands that keeping its extensive and diverse collection of instruments in good condition requires the full-time services of a conservator. Stewart Pollens, who has been with the Met for IS years, is one of only two such experts to hold a post at an American museum; the other one is in Vermillion, South Dakota, at the University of South Dakota's Shrine for Music.

When I met Pollens at the museum, he conducted me through an easily overlooked doorway tucked between an Egyptian sarcophagus and a statue on the first floor, down a utilitarian stairway, and into the basement, an immense space containing staff offices, workshops, and seemingly endless steel shelving on which vaguely discernible musical instruments, wrapped in heavy plastic coating, wait for the moment when they will be exhibited proudly upstairs.

Despite his nearly two decades in an underground office and workshops at the Metropolitan Museum, Pollens looks like a young instructor at a New England college that emphasizes outdoor sports. Forthcoming and cheerful, he is obviously enamored of the objects on whose well-being he spends his time. What does a professional conservator of musical instruments do in a typical day at the office?

Consider 1985's special exhibition of early pianos, which included about 30 instruments from the museum's permanent collection, some centuries-old. "To prepare for that was a lot of work for me;' says Pollens. "The instruments came from a storage area, and many of them had been neglected or not taken out of their protective coverings in 100 years."

Putting them in shape was no easy task. "Pianos are very complicated. Moldings and ornaments and casters had gotten lost or damaged over the years. I spent a good year and a half almost single-handedly getting those instruments together."

Despite his passion for music, Pollens is no musician himself. "I studied piano growing up but never had any inclination, or the talent, to become a concert artist. I did play the clarinet in my high school band." In college he majored in psychology. But after college he found a way to pursue his love of music. He served a series of apprenticeships, one in harpsichord building with John Challis, a noted American maker, and another in organ building. He also did some work restoring violins and trained with a violin maker.

Pollens's front-room counterpart is Laurence Libin, who heads the Department of Musical Instruments for the Met. Libin decides what events take place, using which instruments. "Often the instruments themselves dictate that," Pollens says. "Some are too weak for display; some have too many original parts that have to be replaced or changed or altered, after which the authenticity of the instrument is undermined."

The Metropolitan Museum of Art also sponsors concerts, so Pollens often must render the instruments playable as well as displayable. He keeps the museum's harpsichords, clavichords, and pianos in tune. "Last year we had a concert using some early guitars and flutes playing in combination," he says. "The flutes needed work on their little springs and pads to get the actions working. The guitar frets were loose, and they buzzed."

Not all the instruments make it. "We do not use any woodwind instruments, like oboes and clarinets, in concert, because it's too dangerous," Pollens explains. "An early eighteenth-century oboe would certainly crack and might well be no longer in tune, because the bores have shrunk and the instrument is warped. The instrument no longer represents itself in an accurate way. To start to retune or re-voice a recorder or an oboe is something you just would not do—you're altering the maker's work. You have more of a chance of knowing how it sounds by making up a very, very accurate replica. That's why we do not discourage instrument makers from taking measurements of the old instrument in order, perhaps, to copy it as precisely as one can—although possibly with different materials."

In a recent loan exhibit of Guarneri violins, the museum got permission to use 18 of the 25 instruments in a concert the last weekend of the exhibition. Five performers played pieces for unaccompanied violin by Paganini, Bach, and others. "The most thrilling instrument was Paganini's Cannon, the famous violin he bequeathed to Genoa, city of his birth," Pollens recalls. "It looks horrible, but some of the original varnish is still there. It's actually one of the few instruments of that period that have not been gone over relentlessly every year. In fact, when the instrument is taken off display in the Genoa City Hall, it's placed in a wooden case with a ribbon around it and the seal of Genoa on it. They sent two people with it, neither of whom was a violin expert. They wanted very nervous people to guard it."

Pollens has written a book about the violin that a London press published and sold out at $250 a copy. The book is about a specific piece of wood, or form, that Stradivari used in the process of making a violin. It was a pattern of the violin to-be—a plan, so to speak, as though the observer is looking down on it. Against the outside edges of the form, the maker pressed the pliable thin wood side piece—called the rib—of the violin. The rib joins the top (or belly) of the new violin to the bottom (or back), carrying out the form's complex curves.

"The forms that I wrote about are planks about three-quarters of an inch thick, cut to match exactly the shape that Stradivari wanted for the particular violin under construction. The prospective rib, about one millimeter thick, is heated to make it especially pliable and then bent along the edge of the form. A good number of the forms survive, and what 1 tried to do in the book was to analyze what changes in the shape of the violin were attempted by Stradivari over the years and perhaps to understand what he sought from each change, when one form differed in any respect from its predecessor."

To complete his book on Stradivari, Pollens went back and forth to Cremona, Italy, three or four times, with some financial assistance from the museum. He's written another book, about the history of the early pianoforte, which is coming out soon. "I've spent at least 15 years on it—more."

Pollens and the Metropolitan Museum of Art provide more than edification for the museum's visitors. They are also assembling what one might call scientific data for all those whose passion is historic instruments. Since these classic instruments are not immortal, Pollens may be making it possible for future craftsmen, following his detailed findings, to make violins that not even the best educated ear will be able to distinguish from a Stradivari or a Guarneri.

As a child on the West Side of Manhattan many years ago, I regularly attended Saturday morning movies for young people at the American Museum of Natural History. The films were silent: the one sound, aside from the live narrator's voice, was the tapping of his long bamboo pointer on the plaster wall that served as a screen. He wanted to be sure that we, the nature-deprived urban kids sitting before him, could make out the bird on the film, camouflaged in the tree, or the toad, crouched among old leaves and new at the edge of a stream.

In those days, the museum produced a hero of its own, Roy Chapman Andrews. A young paleontologist on the museum's staff, he persuaded the museum's president in 1920 to send him to Mongolia to explore the Gobi Desert. He became both a popular legend—the basis of Harrison Ford's character in the Indiana Jones movies—and a scientific pioneer, who in the late twenties discovered the first dinosaur eggs.

It was not until last summer that I broadened my childish understanding of what the museum is about. While researching a story about sport-fishing in New York Harbor, I went to the New York Aquarium in Coney Island for information about the present piscine population in the lower Hudson River,

"I don't think you want me," said the gentleman at the aquarium. "You want Dr. C. Lovett Smith, the curator of fish at the Museum of Natural History." Smith, whose actual title is curator of herpetology and ichthyology, graciously told me all I needed to know and presented me with an issue of the American Museum Novitiates, a regular publication of the museum. The issue was devoted to a documentation of Hudson River fish by Smith and Thomas R. Lake, director of the Hudson River Fishermen's Association.

The paper identifies 201 species of fish, whose enumeration required assembling all the credible written records of fish identification over the years—a dry, painstaking task. I realized that the museum was not simply a hall of fame for the trophies of exploring heroes but also where scientists assemble data to support or refute whatever theory of climate, water quality, habitats, and species relationships they may be exploring.

The scientists in that laboratory—the American Museum of Natural History's back room—accumulate the material that goes on display in the front room. How does the museum balance its staff time between the front and back rooms? The question led to the office of Michael Novacek, the museum's vice president and dean of science. A tall man with a head and beard of gloriously unrestrained copper-colored hair, the California-bred Novacek is quick to rise to his feet and extend a warm greeting in the Western spirit of outspoken commonality. He is a world-recognized paleontologist, with field and laboratory credentials, as well as a gifted museum administrator.

The American Museum of Natural History spends $14 million a year on research and study; 12 pages of its annual report list the scientific staff's learned works and other published materials. "There are a few museums—usually only in the great cities that can support them—that are research institutions as well as public education institutions," says Novacek. "One can have a museum without research, but I think there's a particularly distinctive flavor to our museum that can't be matched by these other institutions."

Part of that distinctiveness comes from the continual flow of knowledge from the back room to the exhibition halls. For example, an article by John P. Alexander, senior scientific assistant in vertebrate paleontology, in the museum's own popular publication, Natural History, describes the 1988 discovery of a 150-million-year-old prosimian fossil buried in the Wyoming badlands.

Alexander dug out the bones, more than 60 percent of the animal's skeleton. Alexander says the fossil provides scientists with a "Rosetta Stone" by which they can identify other fossils and expand their knowledge of primate evolution. It's an example of the kind of information a natural history museum needs constantly to keep its exhibits current and accurate in their descriptions. As Novacek puts it, "Without the effects of that scientific creativity, collections become archives."

While museum-goers marvel at the dinosaur skeletons and the dioramas of the African plains, the world's leading scientists work behind the scenes. "Although a lot of our research is focused on collections and exploration, like our work in the Gobi, there's quite a bit of advanced theoretical work that goes on here too," says Novacek. "Some of the most important figures in the development of evolutionary biology over the twentieth century were actually curators of the museum—George Gerhard Simpson, William Keane Gregory, and Ernst Meyer, who many think is the greatest living comparative biologist." E. O. Wilson, the Harvard biologist and author of the groundbreaking 1975 book Sociobiology, was a fellow and is now a trustee of the museum. "They all did their own fieldwork and analysis of their discoveries, but they invested time pondering basic questions in evolutionary biology—questions about how species emerge, how natural selection works, how populations change with time," says Novacek. Perhaps the most familiar name among the museum's past staffers is that of anthropologist Margaret Mead, who was a curator from 1926 to 1978.

Novacek sees the museum's mission in part as promoting basic scientific literacy among the general public. "I sometimes see in museums a tendency to make the wrong assumptions about the capacity of their visitors to understand basic scientific ideas presented in an honest and non-condescending way."

Museum-goers may be imperfect in their science literacy, but they have a genuine interest in learning more about science, Novacek says. In the mid-eighties, he recalls, the museum put on an exhibit of human ancestors. "All we had was a bunch of bones and cases. Thousands of people lined up to come and, I would say, 'worship' those things. They had a passionate interest in their evolutionary history; even these little fragments of the past interested them as much as they interested the researchers who were working on them. We must not err in undershooting our expectations for the public. ...Think of the impact of this museum on a million or so school children, maybe more."

Displaying the objects of the latest scientific investigation to the museum-going public is part of what gives the Museum of Natural History its special flavor, Novacek thinks. Take, for example, the dinosaur embryo in its eggshell, which museum paleontologists discovered in the Gobi Desert in 1993. It was a unique find—the first intact dinosaur embryo ever discovered. It's now on display in the middle of the museum's Rotunda.

"Two or three days after Christmas," Novecek recalls, "I brought some friends to see it, and I could not even get near it. We had 28,000 people here one day, and there were three or four rows of people going up there to look at that thing. That was great, because that's what's required to distinguish a museum like ours—part public exhibition, part scientific research center—and remind New Yorkers that they have it in their city."

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