In the days when Thomas Hoving was director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, from 1967 to 1977, his supporters often charged that his critics were much too hard on him. Were his de-accessioning policies, which entailed the loss of some marvelous pictures, a disaster? Well, perhaps. But just think, his defenders would say, about all the great things he has acquired for the museum. Was his show-biz, glitzy style detrimental to the fundamental purposes of a great art museum? Well, maybe, it would be admitted. But just look at the box-office numbers, they would respond. Wasn’t it great that so many people were now coming to the Met? (Never mind what they did when they got there.) Did a good many of Mr. Hoving’s misleading public statements create a credibility problem of monumental proportions for the museum? Well, yes, it would be acknowledged, but that was said to be merely an error in public relations and not really reflective of the serious work that was being accomplished. Were his spendthrift programs—not only in regard to acquisitions and exhibitions but, above all, in the runaway expansion of the museum itself —likely to saddle the Met with vexing financial burdens for many years to come? Well, that too might be admitted. But as long as the crowds increased and the inventory of acquisitions expanded and the general atmosphere of razzle-dazzle created an impression of popular success, Mr. Hoving’s reckless policies continued to be defended in high places— right up to the moment when, with an almost audible sigh of relief, his resignation was gratefully accepted.
Now, with the publication of Making the Mummies Dance, Mr. Hoving’s highly imaginative (shall we say?) account of his tenure at the Met, his erstwhile supporters have been given their Hoving-style reward—a kick in the teeth. Quite apart from its many inventions and inaccuracies, which have already been the subject of much discussion and refutation in the press, Making the Mummies Dance is most remarkable for the way its author has set out to avenge himself on the very people who were responsible for placing him in a position of power and influence, and for keeping him there in the face of the often devastating criticism that portrayed Mr. Hoving in terms that his own memoirs now amply confirm. The basic charge against Mr. Hoving as director of the Met was that he was neither intellectually serious nor morally responsible in either his policies or in his manner of implementing them. After a reading of Making the Mummies Dance, his critics may well have reason to feel that, far from having been too hard on Mr. Hoving, they had never been sufficiently severe. For this is a book so utterly devoid of intellectual substance and so reprehensible in its professional ethics that it is at times hard to believe that one of our greatest cultural institutions had actually been placed in its author’s charge for an entire decade in the twentieth century. Nothing that Mr. Hoving’s critics ever wrote about him frames an indictment of either his talents or his character more damaging than the one to be found in his own book. This is a document that sets a new low in the literature of contemporary cultural life. The museum profession will be a long time recovering from it, and in this respect, at least, if not in many others, it accurately represents Mr. Hoving’s career in that profession.
In a recent interview with Mr. Hoving in The New York Times, it was revealed that in one of his current projects for television, a medium no doubt more suited to his talents and temperament, “he will serve as an on-air commentator on pop culture” for the Japanese newspaper Chunichi Shimbun. What a pity he didn’t find his true métier many years earlier. What grief it would have saved us all!
- Making the Mummies Dance: Inside the Metropolitan Museum of Art, by Thomas Hoving; Simon & Schuster, 447 pages, $25. Go back to the text.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 11 Number 6, on page 3
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