About the Movie

Seeing Art

Reviewed by Patty de Llosa
Parabola magazine

You may be one of the millions of people who thrill each year to the marvels on display in the cathedral-like halls of the Metropolitan Museum of New York. Like me, you scarcely notice the guards except to ask where the nearest bathroom is or how to find your way out. It has probably never occurred to you to think about the more than two thousand employees whose days and nights are given over to making your museum experience a special event. What are their lives like? What awakens their personal excitement in that magical palace of art?

Hidden Treasures: Stories from a Great Museum will take you on a journey into the Met's secret places. To make this hour-long film, producer/director Alexandra Isles has interviewed thirteen staff members who protect, collect, restore, move, clean, or teach at the Met, as well as a trustee whose great-grandfather started the Lehman Collection. Their moving personal accounts lead us to unsuspected corners of one of the greatest museums in the world as they share intimate moments, luminous with personal appreciations of minor as well as major works of art. And while they relate how their favorite work of art has influenced their lives, Paul Koestner's camera sweeps lovingly across the referenced painting or objets d'art as the haunting Middle Eastern music of G. I. Gurdjieff, played by Laurence Rosenthal, soothes the ear.

You'll discover how Rembrandt's Self-Portrait has served as a trusted mentor for many years and how a wish-granting statue gathers coins and hopes to itself every day. A metallurgist displays a secret compartment he himself discovered recently while ­cleaning a sharp Damascus sword made more than a century ago. (It's hidden under a large emerald.) A night guard focuses on a famous landscape that has become a living, guiding presence during his lonely early morning vigils. A tour guide describes the delight children always find in an intricately carved boxwood rosary bead that contains a whole scene of tiny people inside. Another teacher tells how a dying woman found joy in her last visit to the Egyptian section, where solemn funeral objects informed her of that culture's belief that there is no death, only an end to pain and sorrow.

One of the art technicians is drawn to the power of a mysterious wooden Mayan figure. Another credits the power of a bronze Ganesha with getting her the job she longed for—taking care of the statue itself. There are also personal stories about Lucian Freud's portrait of Leigh Bowery and Ingres's Princess de Broglie. And did you know what's in the weird pigment recipes used to illuminate medieval manuscripts? Or how one art technician surmounted the mammoth task of assembling a set of huge Art Deco glass panels from the sunken French luxury liner Normandie?

With grace and subtlety, Alexandra Moltke Isles has cast a warm light on the lives of each of these custodians of treasure as she humanizes for us the enormous collection that the Met administers. Her passion for research developed during years as Assistant Curator at New York's Museum of Radio & Television (now the Paley Center of Media). No stranger to film-making, she has made a number of historical documentaries, most of them edited by Doug Rossini: The Power of Conscience: The Danish Resistance and Rescue of the Jews (1995); Scandalize My Name (1999) about the black listing of African-American performers during the Red Scare; and Porraimos: Europe's Gypsies in the Holocaust (2002).

More akin to the quiet rhythm of Hidden Treasures is her later film, the delightful Healing Gardens of New York (2007). She says her inspiration for Hidden Treasures came after a visit to the Freer Collection in Washington, D.C., when she heard a guard answer questions from a visitor. "He was so knowledgeable and proud of the collection," she says, "that from then on, whenever I visit a museum I talk to the guards."

Because of the enormous variety of its collections, the Met seemed the most interesting place to make the film she had in mind, but it took years to find the courage to approach the authorities. Isles says ruefully that while the idea of filming after-hours and on days when the museum is closed may sound thrilling, she soon discovered those were also the times the housekeeping was done. "There was always the rattle and hum of heavy equipment on the move," she reports. "And often an unmarked door would suddenly open and a startled janitor would become part of the interview!"

When asked what was the most exciting aspect of the filmmaking, she gave a conspiratorial smile: "Discovering how passionate the staff members are about what they do! In fact, by now you've probably figured out that the true hidden treasures here at the Met are the people themselves!"

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(read review on parabola.org)