There is a decidedly frisky feel to a recent series of advertisements promoting the scholarly joys of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Pictures taken by visitors show friends posing hammily in front of the museum’s exhibits: a young man plays air guitar next to some exotic lutes, an amorous couple lock lips before a Rodin sculpture. The most irreverent of all shows three grinning children in a gallery of Egyptian mummies, with a friend satirically swathed in toilet paper. “It’s time we Met” proclaims the poster, cheesily. It’s a happy scene, with a subtext: the austere museum known throughout the world for its academic rigour and its peerless collections is these days not above slumming it in the marketing jungle with a larky pun or two.
In his handsome office overlooking the city skyline, Thomas P Campbell, the museum’s British director, 18 months into the most prestigious job in world culture, extends the joke, talking faux-ominously of the “security issues” that allowed the children to execute their prank.
But there is a serious issue at play. Museums are having to reinvent themselves in the 21st century as they compete with the dizzying variety of audio-visual stimuli on offer. As a portentous New York Times commentary put it on the announcement of Campbell’s surprise appointment nearly two years ago: “In a culture of American Idol and Damien Hirst, the Met can no longer rely on the singularity of its objects to justify its existence.”
Campbell, a slight, softly-spoken man, bridles slightly when I read him that remark – “What does that mean?” – before taking issue with it. “I think I’d almost claim the opposite. I’d say that in a world of mass-marketing and disposable digital imagery, the Met repository of some 2m objects spanning 5,000 years is ever more important as a place of reflection, as a place where you can get a bit of space to look at things that were hard-won, the product of art.
“Whether it’s the product of artisans working in age-old traditions, or great geniuses breaking new ground, I think you get a broader perspective here, that is ever more important in the modern world.”
These are the kind of reassuring words that persuaded the Met’s trustees to put their faith in Campbell, a curator at the museum since 1995, to succeed the charismatic Philippe de Montebello in September 2008. Then 46, the Englishman was by no means the favourite for the post, with which the British Museum’s director Neil MacGregor had been linked.
But Campbell’s unflappable, scholarly air convinced them to keep the job in-house. Montebello, who retired after 31 years in the post, said it was the right choice. “He is the most modern of us all,” he said, referring to the museum’s distinguished roster of directors. “We’ve had a Romanist, a medievalist, but he goes up through the baroque.” Such was Montebello’s reputation for grandiloquence that it is hard to know whether this was a joke.
In any case, Campbell has his sights set beyond the baroque. The Met is even beginning to plug into the crowd-pleasing circus that is the contemporary art world, with a forthcoming exhibition on John Baldessari that would have been a more obvious fit at the Museum of Modern Art or the Guggenheim. Campbell feels the Met has had a “bad rap” in terms of engaging with late modern and contemporary art, which has always been part of its programming. The difference now is “the recognition that there is a sizeable audience [for it] and we can, here at the Met, put it in the context of our encyclopaedic collections of art history, which is a very different experience from seeing it only in its own context”.
That engagement with contemporary art is part of what he describes as a “fundamental shift” in the presentation of the Met’s displays, helping to make them more accessible. “We assume a great deal of knowledge in our audience; I’m conscious that we need to do more for our general visitors.
“We assume people know who Rembrandt is, for example. We have wonderful, thoughtful labels next to each Rembrandt painting, but there’s no overview of who he was and, frankly, considering our international audience, I doubt whether many of them do know who [he] was, or the significance of a particular period room, in a broader context.
“What I’m trying to do is to get the museum rethinking the visitor experience from the moment that people arrive at the museum: the signage they encounter, the bits of paper they pick up, all the way through to the way we deliver information in the galleries. And obviously that’s an enormous task. We’ve got a million square feet of gallery space and tens of thousands of objects on display, so nothing’s going to change overnight.”
Campbell was born and raised in Cambridge, read English at Oxford University, and studied at Christie’s before receiving his doctorate – on the art and culture of Henry VIII’s court – from the Courtauld Institute. The relative obscurity of his area of expertise, tapestries, also inspired his crowning moment so far at the Met, an exhibition of renaissance tapestries in 2002 that managed the rare achievement of attracting both glowing scholarly reviews and thousands of enraptured visitors.
That double whammy evidently left an impression, as did the words of an Italian teacher at Christie’s who once asked him to describe a Titian bacchanal and, after Campbell had groped for a succession of scholarly terms, admonished him with an explosion of plain speaking: “It is a drunken orgy and they are all having sex!”
“Academia at its best embraces and speaks to a broad audience,” says Campbell when I ask him of the incident’s lesson.
He identifies two movements that are changing the workings of museums: “The new art history that has shifted from the focus on connoisseurship and the priestly blessings of the top scholars to greater socio-political contextualisation; and the trend, coming out of Britain, for museums not just to speak to an elite upper-middle class. I think the London museums have really led the way in that.”
It can’t have escaped his notice, I say, that his appointment was announced the week before the Lehman Brothers collapse. “It has been difficult,” he says with understatement. “This time a year ago, our endowment dropped by at least 25 per cent and all of our revenue streams went soft. I was in my first months in the job. My biggest task was essentially taking 10 per cent out of operating budget, which did involve a contraction of staff and reducing expenditures right across the board.”
That must have been a depressing thing to do, I say, to come to a job like this and dive straight into spending cuts?
“It was challenging. Obviously I’d rather be spending money than saving it. I was just thankful that it was me doing it because at least after 14 years in the museum I had a fair understanding of the institution. It wasn’t easy but I think we managed to achieve what we had to do in a way that was elegant, and not damaging to the institution.”
So is the Met still able to acquire great new works? “There are parts of our endowment that are exclusively for acquisitions, so yes. Of course the irony of the recession is that a number of objects are coming on the market that might not otherwise have done so. The first acquisition meeting over which I presided, in January 2009, we were able to buy this extraordinarily rare, fabulously whimsical piece of renaissance sculpture. The end of that month, Keith Christiansen, our then-curator of European paintings, practically bounced the door off, Seinfeld-like, with excitement: a great Venetian masterpiece had come up.”
I ask Campbell if the Met is interested in becoming a world brand. “The Met was founded to be an international museum here in New York. I’m not interested in putting down bricks and mortar in Abu Dhabi. That said, we are a very out-facing institution.” He flags next year’s reopening of the Islamic galleries – reconfigured in geographical rather than religious terms – as a watershed. “It’s unfortunate that they have been off display for the past six or seven years. I hope they will help break down any prejudices in people’s minds.”
Does Campbell have a dream exhibition that he wants to put on? He hesitates, then talks in general terms of breaking the “inward-looking” culture that afflicts some of the museum’s departments. “I’m sorry, that is not a very good answer,” he says. I understand, I say, these things take years to plan. “Yes they do, and I spend a lot of time in this office working on administration and finance. It’s an endless succession of meetings.”
That doesn’t sound like fun.
“It’s all part of it, because if that part didn’t work then the art part wouldn’t work, so I see it as integrated. There’s nothing more exciting than having one of the curators come in with a potential acquisition, or taking you down to the galleries to see a new discovery, or talking with them about future plans and projects. I’m just so privileged to work with this great faculty of scholars.”