A 25-year veteran of the Metropolitan Museum of Art makes her fiction debut with a literary homage to the venerable New York City institution.
What really goes on behind the scenes and after hours at a major museum? In this series of loosely linked surreal vignettes, Coulson takes us on a tour of the hidden world that tourists never see: the conservation galleries, the staff cafeteria, the dusty storerooms, and dark tunnels—“the grim bowels below the basement where storage cages made with woven-metal fencing held retired art and cartons of old paperwork.” We also meet the Met's eccentric staff and its wealthy patrons. In “Musing,” snooty director Michel Larousse, upon learning that Karl Lagerfeld is bringing a muse to a meeting at the Met, scours his museum’s collections for his own personal muse. In “The Talent,” neurotic curator Nick Morton obsesses about losing prime gallery space to a rival (“My pictures cannot hang on nine-foot walls”). And in “Mezz Girls,” lonely, cranky Mrs. Leonard Havering dines at a benefit auction with the troublesome ghost of a previous Met benefactor. And then there’s the art: In “Chair as Hero,” an 18th-century fauteuil à la reine in the Wrightsman Galleries recalls comforting the distraught young daughter of the Duchess of Parma, and in “Adam,” a Renaissance statue craves movement, with disastrous results. Magical realism requires finesse, and while some of Coulson’s fables offer a bit of fun whimsy (a time-traveling passageway in “Meats & Cheeses” leads to the Met’s 1920 Egyptian expedition), clunky prose too often spoils the mood. (“Rather paltry, he smirked”; “ ‘No sweetie,’ chomped a showgirl version of Calliope from the European Paintings collection”). Coulson obviously loves her former employer, but her vignettes never add up to more than the sum of their parts. Still, this will sell in the Met's store as an alternative guidebook to its rich treasures.
Don't expect any Night at the Museum hijinks here.