Museums and Literature
The Great Hall at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photograph Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art. © Brooks Walker 2002
Just crossing the street to the Metropolitan Museum of Art is enough to make me feel like I’m 10 years old again. I’m imagining I’m Claudia Kincaid, and I’m running away from home. I’m planning to live in the museum, like she did in From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.
After I get in any museum – art, history, geological – I am certain I could live there. There’s so much to see, learn and discover. It’s no wonder authors want to set their books in museums; there are endless plots and ideas in a museum.
American Museum of Natural History.
Book-turned-movie The Night at the Museum by Milan Trenc is set at New York’s American Museum of Natural History, a place of wonder even without the dinosaur skeletons coming alive to play in the dark hours of the night. The book and movie remain popular reasons to visit the museum and they offer themed tours and sleepovers for visitors who love to make the book seem alive. Don’t forget, Holden Caulfield also visited this museum in The Catcher in the Rye.
Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675)
Girl with a Pearl Earring, c. 1665
Oil on canvas
44.5 x 39 cm
Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, The Hague
The museum connection is strong in books like Tracy Chevalier’s Girl With a Pearl Earring, or current best seller, The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt. Both recently caused sold-out tickets for The Frick Museum‘s Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Hals: Masterpieces of Dutch Painting from the Mauritshuis exhibit that hosted the paintings founds in both books.
Curator Margaret Iacono, of the Frick, said fiction can play a role in creating new art lovers.
“I think that when a work of art is featured so prominently in a novel, especially in novels that are so moving to readers, it entices readers to see the original work which was so inspiring to the author,” Iacono said. “We have learned that some of our visitors came specifically to see the Girl or the Goldfinch and then discovered the other extraordinary paintings in the exhibition and in the Frick’s permanent collection.”
The paintings in the books are real, but the stories told in the books don’t always match reality.
“We have occasionally had visitors who expressed surprise – and even disappointment – when they discovered that Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring is not a portrait of his house maid as described in Tracy Chevalier’s novel,” Iacono said. “I think this speaks to Ms. Chevalier’s marvelous ability to create a compelling story with believable characters. The truth is that we do not know who, if anyone served as Vermeer’s model.”Many of the visitors who came to see Fabritius’ famous Goldfinch painting mentioned they had read or were reading the best seller. “So far we haven’t heard that anyone incorrectly thought that it was on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art as described in Tartt’s book,” Iocono said.
It’s just as well. In Tartt’s book, the Metropolitan Museum of Art is partially flattened by a bomb and many paintings are destroyed.
Block-busting best sellers like Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code have created sell out tours in London and Paris. Angels & Demonsby Brown spawned tours of Rome, including Castel Sant’Angelo‘s museum of course St. Peter’s Square, an unofficial museum of art and history in Vatican City. Not to be outdone, Washington D.C. tourists can also visit the Smithsonian Institution, International Spy Museum and other sites found in Brown’s The Lost Symbol on a tour. The newest book in Brown’s Langdon series is Inferno, which takes place in Florence, Italy, and of course covers a lot of museum ground there, including the Palazzo Vecchio.
Many more museum and book connections can be found. The Madonnas of Leningrad takes place in The Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia, as museum staff hides art to protect it during World War II. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen uses a fictional secret room at the British Museum as a meeting place. The Sixty-Eight Rooms is a great series for children about the 68 exquisitely crafted miniature rooms found at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Author Orhan Pamuk, summed it up well. “After all, isn’t the purpose of the novel, or of a museum, for that matter, to relate our memories with such sincerity as to transform individual happiness into a happiness all can share?”