About the Movie

Movie review: A loving look inside the Metropolitan Museum

Thursday, April 7, 2011
By Michael Janusonis
Arts Writer
The Providence Journal

Alexandra M. Isles' documentary "Hidden Treasures: Stories from a Great Museum," showing Saturday afternoon as part of the SENE Film, Music & Arts Festival, is a valentine to the people who work behind the scenes — and sometimes out front — at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.

It's a fascinating peek into the inner workings of that venerable institution. Isles has done brief interviews with members of the staff which put a personal face on the museum.

There's the staff armorer who found a hidden compartment on a jewel-encrusted sword from the Ottoman Empire which had been in the museum since the 1920s. A woman who uncrates and catalogues acquisitions opens up about why she has come to love a painting of a man that she had at first detested. Another woman who gives weekend tours to Spanish-speaking children enthuses about the intricate carving of the Crucifixion on a small wooden rosary bead.

A curator fascinated by the artistry of remote civilizations tells about going to a distant village on a Pacific island to uncover the origins of a stately wooden gong in the museum's possession, carved from a hollowed-out tree trunk with the visage of a man. There's the woman who gives tours to intellectually challenged visitors and finds it rewarding that she can open them up to art.

A paper conservator interested in ancient illuminated manuscripts discusses how she found recipes for the pigments used by the ancient monks and tried to replicate them, which includes grinding up unusual plants and taking urine from young men who'd drunk good wine the night before.

Speaking of unusual plants, a museum horticulturalist introduces us to the poisonous and hallucinogenic plants she grows that once were used to guard against witches and fairies. She tells how people hundreds of years ago used dogs and earplugs to safely dig up the mandrake plant, used as a powerful narcotic, to avoid keeling over from the deadly shriek the plant was supposed to emit.

You'll hear a tune from 1623 that's part of clockworks still in operating order and learn of the ancient Egyptians' perception of the afterlife that gave a dying woman hope. There's even the image of a ghost in a gallery captured on film.

The film's title, "Hidden Treasures," refers not only to the museum's collections, but to the people who make the place so special.

"Hidden Treasures" will be screened at 3:30 p.m. Saturday, April 9, in the Metcalf Auditorium at the Chace Center at the RISD Museum. Admission is $9. Director Alexandra Isles is expected to attend.

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(read review on The Providence Journal's website)