Early movies from the Met 2.

18th March 2020

John Wyver writes: following on from yesterday’s post I am continuing to look at the films that New York’s Metropolitan Museum (exterior above, in 1928) has put online as a contribution to The Met 150, its anniversary celebration of its opening in 1870.

Of course, like all cultural organisations The Met is facing very serious problems because of the Covid-19 crisis; read more about it in The New York Times here.

Fortunately The Met remains open online, and my focus today is the 25-minute behind-the-scenes mute study Behind the Scenes: The Working Side of the Museum (1928), which is embedded here:

Although there’s nothing comparable, at least that I know of, made during the interwar years in Britain, we have in recent years become very familiar with this kind of privileged if tightly controlled backstage view of the workings of a cultural organisation. Indeed, BBC2 and Blast Films’ recent series about the V&A, Secrets of the Museum, is a direct descendent.

The first two-thirds of Behind the Scenes visits the various operation centres of the Met including the Registrars’s Office, the Photograph Division and the film production centre as well as workshops for carpentry, case-building, needlework and printing. One of the surprising aspects of the filming is that many of these areas, which are crowded and somewhat chaotic as well as far from pristinely clean, could be in any medium-sized industrial enterprise. The gilding workshop, where conservators are working on elaborate frames for paintings, is one of the few areas to reveal that we’re in the bowels of an art museum.

The final third of the film follows, albeit with only the sketchiest of narratives, preparations for a hang in the Department of Decorative Arts. And even here we get next-to-no sense of any of the front-of-house spaces of the museum – no wide shots of the imposing entrance hall and nothing to give us any idea about how the museum’s displays look to the visitor.

In the Haidee Wasson essay that I referenced yesterday, ‘Big, fast museums / small, slow movies’ included in the collection Useful Cinema, edited by Wasson and Charles Acland (Duke University Press, 2011), Behind the Scenes is described in this way:

The museum becomes a place of rationalised and methodical work… Paramount within the rhetoric of the film is the need for the museum to configure itself as a bustling hive of activity, fully engaged with the latest technologies of dissemination and display – as a place where relevant, efficiently managed things are always happening.

Which is certainly the case, but what puzzles me is who the film was made for – and why? Presumably the anticipated audience was a general public thought to be interested in the workings of the institution. Yet apart from simply showing activities in progress there’s very little to draw the viewer in – and there’s minimal connection with the collection of the gallery displays. Wasson again:

[T]he museum was making itself visible to its public by extending its mannered and authoritative exhibitionary impulses, linking the inner workings of the museum to the motion of the camera, the circulation of photographs, and the pulse of the press. This controlled and particular exhibitionary impulse includes the newness of the specific display techniques that brokered this view. That is to suggest that new and old display technologies worked together harmoniously here, furthering a particularly modern technological view to old art and ostensibly timeless spaces.

This sophisticated argument makes sense of the Behind the Scenes – but perhaps only up to a point. It’s precisely the links to ‘old art and ostensibly timeless spaces’ that I miss in the film, and their absence renders the film oddly disconnected, ungrounded. The new media of films, photographs and posters are most certainly foregrounded, but we don’t see anything of their subjects. Next-to-no ‘old art’ and no ‘timeless spaces’ whatsoever. The traditional functions and contents of a museum have been pushed aside and as a consequence the film ends up somehow dislocated, lacking both implied audience and purpose.

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