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China show signals Met’s expanding global role

Outgoing director Thomas Campbell built bridges with museums in Asia and Latin America

by Javier Pes  |  28 March 2017
China show signals Met’s expanding global role
Thomas P. Campbell, Director of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, speaking at a press briefing at the Palace Museum in Beijing, China, about the exhibition China: Through the Looking Glass (Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
The next director of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art will take over an institution with a greatly expanded global role, perhaps the most significant long-term legacy of its outgoing director, Thomas Campbell, who announced in late February that he would be stepping down in June. “I have been trying to develop an agenda that moves away from a Western museum as primarily an accumulator of objects and knowledge to one that positions it as part of a matrix of international peers,” Campbell said of his eight years at the helm.

Campbell spoke to The Art Newspaper ahead of the opening of Art of Empires: Chinese Art of the Qin and Han Dynasties (221BC-AD220) on 3 April (until 16 July). The major exhibition, which features more than 160 loans from 32 museums and archaeological institutions across China, is the culmination of years of research and negotiations with colleagues in China, and involved several visits to China by Campbell and the Met’s curators of Asian art.

He has visited mainland China six times since he became the Met’s director in 2009. He rarely travelled beyond Europe when he was a curator at the museum, he recalled. The Met’s latest China blockbuster, which follows The World of Khubilai Khan: Chinese Art in the Yuan Dynasty (2010-11) and China: Through the Looking Glass (2015), will provide an important insight into the country’s history and show how long it has existed, he said. It opens “as China emerges as a great superpower”, he added.

Campbell said that the Met’s global engagement will continue through exhibitions, excavations, exchanges and fellowships as well as digitally—another area close to the outgoing director’s heart. Despite reducing the number of the museum’s planned exhibitions as it tackles its operating deficit, he revealed that the Met’s curators are working on a major project about Mughal India and a show on the Middle East.

The Met is an East Coast partner of the second edition of Pacific Standard Time LA/LA, co-organising a major international loan show—Golden Kingdoms: Luxury and Legacy in the Ancient Americas—with the J. Paul Getty Museum. It is due to open at the Met in February 2018. (The Met’s interim chief executive, Daniel Weiss, is suggesting postponing some shows, the Wall Street Journal reports.)

“With rising prosperity across the world—in Latin America, Africa and Asia—there are ever larger cultural industries in these regions,” said Campbell. With this in mind, the Met launched the Global Museum Leaders Colloquium (GMLC) four years ago. Between ten to 15 directors of institutions from across the world are invited to the Met to spend 12 days exchanging ideas and expertise.

The first participants included the chief curator of the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul, as well as museum directors from Brazil, Argentina, Peru, China and India, among other countries. Last year, participants included the director-general of Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery, Zelfira Tregulova. The next colloquium, which is moderated by the consultant and regular contributor to The Art Newspaper, András Szántó, is due to take place in spring 2018.

One of the first museum directors to publicly condemn the destruction of cultural heritage by extremists in Syria and Iraq, Campbell said that staff from the Met recently met colleagues from those countries in Istanbul, which led to its creation of portable kits to help experts to record sites as soon as they are safe to enter.

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