Money & Careers

Volunteer Passion No. 5: “Highlights” Tour Guide at the Met

This is the fifth in our series on compelling volunteer work. The first, “Free Advice for Free Laborers,” was an insider’s look at how museums choose their volunteers; the second, “JFK’s Peace Corps Call,” focused on volunteering for the Peace Corps at age 50 or older; the third, “Coaching the Sport of Reading,” was WVFC contributor Toni Myers’s paean to coaching reading as a team sport; the fourth, A Tutor’s Tale, quotes a volunteer who relishes the chance to help a child discover the transporting pleasure that reading can provide. And this is the story of an art lover who has secured a privileged volunteer spot: conducting a “Highlights” tour at one of the greatest museums in the world.

 

The Great Hall of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Great Hall of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Twice a month I get to take visitors on a lightning tour of the magnificent Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York City. We have to hustle—we contemplate seven different works of art, in seven different galleries, in an hour. (At least there’s no time for anyone in my group to get bored.)

Mine is one of hundreds of tours the museum offers—each one designed by the volunteer who leads it. And so, twice a month—as I have for 20 years—I get to pass along my enthusiasm for seven of my favorite works among the millions in the museum’s collection. Among my current seven are a third-century bronze statue from Greece, a 13th-century stained glass window from France, a carved-wood African statue dated between the 16th and the 19th centuries, a 16th-century Flemish Renaissance painting, and carved-wood tomb models from ancient Egypt.

We weekend volunteers—most of us people with day jobs—are largely self-taught, using the museum’s vast libraries of books, video, and online resources as well as curator-led gallery lectures. Museum staff help us design tours around the artworks that most interest us, on the premise that enthusiastic tour guides are most likely to wow visitors. Covering every continent and every historical period, from prehistory to the 21st century, this museum is a vast encyclopedia of the human imagination, and we can turn only a few pages in our hour-long tours.

Our job never gets stale, because we are always studying. We know more objects than we present, and we can swap in another artwork if there’s a temporary gallery closure or a piece is going out on loan. We’re fortunate to be able to meet with museum curators every month to reap the benefit of their expertise in enriching our tours.

The museum recently introduced a new methodology that emphasizes engaging viewers in really looking at a piece, rather than the guide’s lecturing about it. Many visitors find museums intimidating, and if we can show them that they can look at art and trust their own instincts, we can make the museum more user-friendly. I love it when I make them laugh, because then they relax and become receptive.

800px-Bronze_statue_of_Eros_sleeping-Metropolitan_museum_of_ArtSleeping Eros

So, when introducing the Sleeping Eros, a beautiful, rare Hellenistic bronze statue from the third century B.C. that depicts the powerful god of love as a sleeping infant, I ask: “Did you know that this little guy can really wreck your life? He looks as harmless as a sleeping baby, but he can overwhelm your mind by making you fall in love with the first creature you see after he strikes you with his arrow.” Then I invite them to look closely at the plump, doughy flesh that screams baby fat, the wrinkles in the thighs, the twist of the belly, the arm hanging limply, the open mouth. So skilled is the artist at conveying the heaviness of sleep that the piece looks solid, yet it is made of seven separately cast pieces joined together so skillfully that the joins are invisible.

Up until the time this statue was cast, Eros had always been depicted as cruel and capricious, and it was a radical departure to show him in the vulnerable state of sleep. The Romans were so charmed by this statue that they copied it and sent it to the far corners of the empire to grace villas as garden statuary, thus ensuring its survival down the centuries as Cupid.

Standing in front of a magnificent stained glass window, imagine that you are a poor, illiterate peasant in 13th-century France. The only time you ever see bright colors or images is in church, and if you live in or near Paris, you might worship at St. Germain des Pres, one of the first Gothic churches, with its tall, thin walls supported by ribbed vaults and flying buttresses, and stained glass windows to match. You learn Bible stories from the windows, which also had a metaphorical meaning. The fact that light passes through glass without harming it is equated with the Immaculate Conception. This window tells the story of the founding of St. Germain des Pres in the 6th century, when the king and his brother went to Spain to recover the tunic of Saint Vincent, martyred by the Romans.

See how elongated the figures are, how expressive the faces, and the large feet that dangle from the ankles? The glazier wanted to be sure anyone standing far away could see the figures and understand the story, rather like a Broadway set designer thinking of the nosebleed seats.

Looking at the Dogon Couple in the African department,  I invite visitors to contrast its strict linearity with the curvilinear naturalism of the Sleeping Eros. Carved from a single piece of wood, the two figures have the same height and the same facial features. You can tell them apart only by the sexual characteristics attached to them. You know that saying about how the longer people are married, the more they come to resemble each other? That is the poster for the ideal Dogon couple. With one hand he touches his genitals, with the other he encircles her shoulders and touches her breast. Their roles are clearly defined, yet neither is more dominant or powerful. They represent Dogon ideals about male and female roles in their society, and, like the stained glass window, the piece is a teaching tool for a culture without a written language.

 

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  • Toni Myers February 3, 2015 at 3:38 pm

    Your brilliant description of the objects you have chosen makes me want to hop on a plane, go to the Met, and request you as a tour guide. Thanks.

    Reply
  • Liz Robbins February 3, 2015 at 1:53 pm

    Nora, what a terrific piece. You make the objects come alive.

    Reply
  • B. Elliott February 3, 2015 at 9:48 am

    Delightful post! Enlightened my morning. The Met is fortunate to have you!

    Reply