The Morgan Library and Museum has been a New York City favorite place to visit for the past 10-15 years. In a building completed in 1906 to house the private study and library of financier Pierpont Morgan, the average person, for a fee, is able to ogle one of the more opulent structures in America. An “Italianate marble villa, designed in the spirit of the High Renaissance … considered one of New York’s great architectural treasures”, according to the press release distributed at the “media preview” I attend with my pal Kerry on Thursday October 21, 2010. The press preview focuses on the imminent public reopening of the original 1906 structure that has been closed the public for a few months of rehab and refurbishing and buffing and polishing. The 2006 Renzo Piano designed expansion and renovation completes the airy modern multi-dimensional experience of this space, with the requisite groovy gift shop at cafe.
This joint houses so many stunning works on paper (manuscripts ranging from monk-illuminate religious texts to several Gutenberg Bibles to ancient cuneiform cylinders to a letter written by Elizabeth I to … ) it is impossible to list the riches. Get to know this venue, visit often, appreciate the beauty, attend to the temporary exhibit schedules. When visceral reactions to this massive concentration of wealth abate … focus on the splendors and majesty and wonders of the items in the holdings and now more fully on stunning display for all to view.
Back to the press preview event this week. For a moment, indulge me in imposing some theatre critical commentary upon an otherwise nicely designed press preview experienced yesterday morning. Press opening as performance. First the pleasantries. There is a lovely classical small group string quartet in Piano addition lobby/courtyard with soaring glass panes, coffee and bites, as we wait for formal comments and tours to begin. Opening words are offered by the excited and articulate Director of the Museum, William M. Griswold. Kerry and I also luck out by having the Director as our “tour guide” for when several groups of the assembled press folks were led around the refurbished original building after the opening remarks concluded.
And now for the criticism. Before we are released to our color-coded touring groups, another staff member delivered the text of the letter quoted below. If you’re a meek researcher, don’t try to be an actor. Hire an actor to do a dramatic reading or just read the words. In this case some hapless and I’m sure otherwise well qualified academic curator or museum administrator (not the charming Director), reads from a letter written by Thomas Jefferson to his daughter Martha with a bad kind of English accent. Thomas Jefferson with a second-rate generalized bad British accent. O my god. Really, Morgan, the embarrassment of acting riches in this City should really tell you something. Don’t act like a clueless academic in such a setting again but if you must wander into accents and dramatic readings — talk to the Lark Play Development Center or talk to a student training program. Hire a professional. Do something but don’t do this again.
The words from this letter are now printed in a display case that holds the letter manuscript located in the rehabbed 1906 McKim Building Rotunda. This is Jefferson writing to daughter Martha who was largely brought up in Europe, instructing her to buck up, stop complaining, take note of what differentiates the European from the American character, especially in the 1700s. Perhaps whining contemporaries could read these words and get back to basics. Mr. Jefferson:
“It is part of the America character to consider nothing as desperate; to surmount every difficulty by resolution and contrivance. In Europe there are shops for every want. Its inhabitants therefore have no idea that their wants can be furnished otherwise. Remote from all other aid, we are obliged to invent and to execute; to find means within ourselves, and not to lean on others. Consider therefore the conquering of your Livy as an exercise in the habit of surmounting difficulties, a habit which will be necessary to you in the country where you are to live, and without which you will be thought a very helpless animal, and less esteemed.”
I will scheme to identify a project that will allow me to obtain research credentials and spend time with the materials in the vaults and resources of this amazing place. From tourist to local haunt. In one lifetime.
more about the Morgan and this restoration: http://themorgan.org/McKim/default.asp
© Martha Wade Steketee (October 22, 2010)