How to be a museum curator

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What you’ll need: an art history degree

Songlist: Can’t Touch This by MC Hammer, The Art Teacher by Rufus Wainwright

Further reading: The Night at the Museum by Milan Trenc, Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code (but don’t actually read this one)

Monet's waterlilies curve around the specially designed rooms of Musee L'Orangerie in Paris

Yesterday my boyfriend and I went to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts for a family-friendly event called ¡España! I had been lured by the promise of flamenco guitar in the galleries. Since I was fairly sure I would know the guitarist(s)–the Twin Cities flamenco community is not all that big–I was more interested in the concept of looking at art with flamenco guitar as a backdrop than the music itself. After wandering around the galleries waiting to hear guitar strings vibrating in the vicinity, we finally just asked a docent where to find the guitarist. He pointed back the way we came: all the way to the end of the hall, take a left, and all the way to the end of that hall. We wound up in a bright white atrium–no art on the walls–facing an empty black chair with a microphone forlornly angled at the floor and a sign saying “Flamenco guitar: 12 pm-4pm.” I looked at my watch: 3:15 pm.

The day was not a total waste, though, because I always love wandering the Institute’s halls. We walked past old favorites–the easy to love Monet haystack and Van Gogh olive trees, the more violent Max Beckmann triptych that my mom and I discovered last April–and temporary galleries of photography and modern art.

It wasn’t always like this. When I was a kid and it was one of my parents’ birthdays or we had a visitor from out-of-town, we would invariably go to the MIA. I was not bored by the art at the time, but I always assumed beforehand that I would be; this assumption, voiced in protest to my parents, meant that I could not thereafter be seen enjoying myself at the art museum.

Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surprised!)

Perhaps it was when I visited London with my mom at the age of 14 that I suddenly realized how much I do enjoy being at art museums. We went to the National Gallery and I fell in love with two paintings there: Henri Rousseau’s Tiger in a Tropical Storm and The Execution of Lady Jane Grey by Paul Delaroche. Because they were the first paintings I truly loved, they are still the paintings I love best.

And while I haven’t fallen quite so hard for any other painting, I have been strongly affected many times since while touring art museums: at Madrid’s Reina Sofia I stood shocked at Picasso’s Guernica and felt intensely nostalgic in front Dali’s Muchacha de Espalda. I felt awed by the gigantic water lily paintings that wrap around two ovular galleries in the Musee L’Orangerie in Paris. And I was giddy with excitement seeing Van Gogh’s Starry Night in person at the MoMA.

The best experience I had, though, was a thirty-minute jaunt through the Louvre on a Friday evening with my friend Hilary. Admission was free for those under 26 on Friday evenings, and we’d meant to get there earlier but had dallied. This also happened to be a night where musicians were scattered around the vast palaces. Hilary and I raced past a jazz trio playing in front of an Egyptian pyramid, a violinist in the Great Hall, a brass quartet by the Venus de Milo. It was this beautiful phantasmagoria of color and sound made more exciting by the fact that we were actually, literally, running through the Louvre to take it all in.

What I can’t fathom is how incredible it would be to work in these buildings, to patrol the corridors where incredible art hangs, to have meetings down the hall from John Singer Sargent or El Greco or Caravaggio. Does a curator become complacent about the scenery? It seems doubtful. I imagine that being in that setting day after day would be like a perpetual dream…flamenco guitar or not.

The Execution of Lady Jane Grey

The Dan Brown code


Dan Brown has plenty of enemies.  From plagiarism to historical inaccuracy to terrible sentence structure, there are any number of reasons to be dismayed.  Personally, I was affronted by his assumption that he is not only more clever than all of his readers, but also more than his characters.

The Da Vinci Code, unsurprisingly, is full of what Dan Brown considers codes.  Around page 394, we readers see a message written in one of these so-called codes.  In fact, the message is written a somewhat stylized script, in English, printed backwards. Immediately, I thought, “Oh, I see, it’s backwards.  This will be as obvious to the protagonists as it is to me, a lay reader.”  However, our three code-breaking heroes, Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon, French National Police cryptographer Sophie Neveu, and crazy old man Leigh Teabing pronounce it gibberish!  illegible!  mind-boggling! Luckily, Sophie comes through in a pinch: she tells the other two that her grandfather taught her this language (ie, English) when she was young, and she retains fluency in it.   She holds it up to the light to see the message through the other side:

From The Da Vinci Code: a hidden message in plain view

When Brown uses real codes in order to lend authenticity to his brand of historical fiction, he fares no better.  Jim Sanborn, creator of the sculpture Kryptos, which stands outside of CIA headquarters, said, “I don’t want my work manipulated in such a way that its meaning is somehow transformed.”  Brown had appropriated the code that Sanborn implanted within the sculpture to support his own theory of Mary Magadelene as axis mundi in the Christian faith.

It must be spelling out...Mary Magdalene!

Who does Dan Brown think he is, to get away with any of this?  Luckily, The New Yorker, has an answer to that.

The clues lie within the name itself. Brown is a color. What colors combine to make brown? Red, blue, and yellow—the primary colors. Brown is the color of the world, so we can assume Dan Brown is an international organization.

But is Dan Brown right about any of the conspiracies he’s created and fueled?  If only we could go straight to the historical source…