Horrors of Museum Trotting and a Remedy

ALTHOUGH all members of the Contributors’ Club are anonymous, it is fair, as it is good club custom, to let it be known what manner of person is speaking. I am, then, a high-school teacher of free-hand drawing, one of those who are feminizing our popular education, and I function in a small Long Island community.

Weepeckit, L. I., however, is not without its aspirations to culture. I have with difficulty achieved two memorable summer trips to Europe, and I have tried to consolidate the impressions thereby gained, somewhat hurriedly, by attending Miss Dorothy Saltonstall’s six parlor lectures on ‘Painting through the Ages.’ She has relations in Boston, has made four trips to Europe, and has read every word that Bernard Berenson, Roger Fry, Clive Bell, Royal Cortissoz, Frank Jewett Mather, Jr., James G. Huneker, Leo Stein, and Walter Pach have written on painting.

Her talks and lantern slides inspired me to revisit the Metropolitan Museum. So, taking the 7.38 on a Saturday, I arrived at its portal just before the opening hour, ten o’clock. Over the uneasy and eager crowd waiting for the turnstile I felt a certain superiority, for I knew just what I wanted to see — namely, the Rembrandts, the Vermeers, and the Italian primitives. With so intelligently limited a programme, I felt sure of a profitable and delightful day before the 5.26 should bear me back to my light housekeeping and electric chafing dish.

Dis aliter visum, as my colleague Gwendolyn Davis remarks when things go wrong with her. My visit turned out to be a fatiguing one, as you shall hear.

Being properly primed by Miss Saltonstall, I started for the early Vermeer in the Altman Collection. Foreseeing a hard day, I took the elevator, walked through a hundred feet of alluring modern bronzes, then with averted eyes through a gallery of enticing Japanese potteries, next through many galleries of old sculpture, furniture, and prints, and at last, a little bewildered, stood before ‘The Sleeping Servant.’ My next objective was the two Vermeers in the Dutch gallery. That meant a walk of a quarter of a mile, much of it being along my old route, but varied by a suite of period rooms, by a mixed gallery of old masters, another of recent American paintings, a long gallery of small metal work, and two more of French and English paintings. Having found the effort not to look fatiguing, this time I looked, but as little as possible. That was less confusing but even more tiring, and it took minutes of pulling myself together before I could enjoy, even tepidly, that loveliest of Dutch pictures, ‘The Lady at a Casement.’ To see the Rembrandts I repeated the shuttling manœuvre. Then fled to the cafeteria for a sandwich, heartening coffee, and a cigarette, being physically and mentally bruised. While I smoked I thought the whole thing over.

It was always the same. To see the Early Italians, I must do what I had done for the Vermeers and Rembrandts — take inevitable long walks through distracting galleries. I restudied the Museum plan. Some Italian sculpture was in the Morgan collection, near Eighty-third Street, some in the general galleries near Eighty-first. To pass from one to the other I must either see or ignore many galleries of splendid Eastern rugs and potteries, or, by an alternate route, many of Chinese paintings, porcelains, and jade. Ever the same obstacles to finding tranquilly the thing one wished to see.

I did, against my better judgment, manage the Italian primitives between lunch and tea, but at the cost of extreme exhaustion and a headache. At tea I had the good luck to meet my college mate, Susan Grantly, assistant curator in one of the departments. Telling her my troubles, I asked if there were no remedy.

‘None whatever,’ she said crisply. ‘Museums have to be big, and so they have to be confusing.’

‘Why could n’t they be smaller?’ I asked.

‘Because we must show to students everything possible in their field,’ she answered.

‘At least there might be more museums,’ I gasped, ‘and not this mess of everything. Painting and sculpture by itself, for example.’

‘That’s quite impossible,’ she said sternly. ‘There are n’t enough boards of trustees.’

I was going to ask, ‘Why not make enough boards?’ when I saw that the subject, on her side, was closed.

Two hours later, in my room, I got my aching feet into bed slippers, supped on a bromo-seltzer and a whole-wheat biscuit, fell asleep in my chair, and, when my brain had stopped whirling, had a dream.

I had passed the great door of a museum, and saw at the right a booth with a dozen neat guards waiting, some wheel chairs, and a rack on which hung many spotless white bandages. One of the guards approached me and courteously asked, ‘Are you visiting the museum in general, or something in particular?’

‘In particular,’ I answered stiffly. ‘I want to see the Vermeers, but it is almost impossible, with the size and awful arrangement of this museum.'

The guard smiled. ‘It used to be so, lady, but we have found a remedy. Would you rather be wheeled or led?’

‘I will be led,’ I answered.

‘These are sterilized,’ he said, while he deftly bandaged my eyes. Taking his arm, I was pleasantly conscious of a short walk, of the creaking of an elevator, of a longer walk, until the silent guide asked, ‘Will you begin with “The Lady at a Casement” or “The Lady with a Lute”?’

‘With “The Lady at a Casement,” of course,’ I said.

He withdrew the bandage and I saw as I had never seen before that masterpiece so perfect in harmonies of straw color and pale blue, in reality, in the beauty of housewifely morale, in just, everything.

‘Shall I wait for you, or come back when you say?’ the guard suggested. ‘The other Vermeer is in a special collection far away.’

‘Come in half an hour, please,’ I said.

He came. Again I strolled unperturbed and delightfully to my objective, and left the museum both exalted and refreshed.

On waking, it seemed to me — and still seems — that there was something in my dream, so I pass it on to my fellow members of the Club. If a museum really can’t find any reasonable way of bringing a work of art before a visitor, might n’t there be some way of bringing the visitor immediately and tranquilly before the work of art? I am thinking of taking up the matter with Dorothy Saltonstall, whose uncle is a trustee of an art museum.