How does the Met keep their sculptures so shiny?

14 May 2009

With a swiffer! P&G couldn’t make a better ad if they tried.

Seriously though, there was something really joyful about seeing this no nonsense woman assiduously dusting stone abs and bronze buttocks as though they were furniture in someone’s apartment. This is a joy example that doesn’t bear many of the typical signals of joyful aesthetics—saturated colors, cuteness, youth, play, or nostalgia. In fact, just the opposite, here is an instance of work, and not just any work, but manual labor often considered drudgery, seeming joyful. Why?

It hinges on the pleasurable disruption of expectations. The expectations here are unconscious, stemming from the conventions of a museum. In a museum, the boundary between art and viewer is a sacred line. We can look, but not touch. To see someone so matter-of-factly breaching such a barrier jars you out of your normal experience and diverts your attention.

So it’s a noticeable disruption, a departure from the ordinary. But why is it joyful? First, the idea of touching the sculptures is appealing, and it appeals to the unfiltered, tactile inner child in all of us. Children always seek to touch as part of their sensory experience, and it’s only as adults that we learn to control that desire. So watching someone touch the sculptures connects us to our own desire to do just that, and the sensation is something we imagine as pleasurable. (This is well-trod territory, cf. “Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler” among others.) Second, there is the fact that most of us never think about the cleaning of the artworks in a museum. We assume that they must get cleaned, but that it’s probably done off-hours, at night with special high-tech cleaning instruments. So the second joyful aspect, beyond the breaking of the touch-barrier, is that it reveals something normally hidden to us, and reveals it to be contradictory to our assumptions. The revelation of hidden aspects of things is naturally pleasurable to us (think voyeurism, or The Discovery Channel) as it satisfies our natural curiosity.

But the kicker is the juxtaposition between the glossy, venerable sculpture and the mundane household cleaning tool with the faintly silly name. The swiffer is a complete oddity in a museum, and that contrast is ironic and enjoyable.

The best part of all this is how it then gets encoded into memory. I don’t think I’ll ever look at that sculpture again without imagining this matter-of-fact woman and her swiffer, and having a little smile at the memory. And I think the Met will always be a little more joyful now that I’ve had a funny little peek into its hidden side.