A conversation with Christine Coulson: Behind the scenes at the Met in METROPOLITAN STORIES

© 2019 Jackie Neale

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City is one of the world’s great museums and the center of the American art world. Christine Coulson worked there for 25 years, falling in love with the art as well as the institution and its fascinating cast of characters. Last October, Other Press published Metropolitan Stories, her novel-in-stories about life behind the scenes at a museum in which millions of people have spent many hours, spellbound.

How did you come to work for the Met? Did you think it would end up being your career?

I was an intern at The Met in the summer of 1991, between college and graduate school, and the Museum’s behind-the-scenes magic got to me right away. My job was to sort through the correspondence between the great nineteenth-century art collector Louisine Havemeyer and the American Impressionist painter Mary Cassatt. I was reading their original letters, written in their ancient handwriting and folded into small, wax-sealed envelopes. I also gave tours, and even when I just sat at the Information Desk, giving people directions to the bathroom, I knew I was part of something amazing. The Met was where I wanted to be. I had spent a lot of time there as a visitor, but I wanted to be an insider.

I rose through the ranks working in the Development Office, the Director’s Office, and the Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts. I am unusual in that I worked in different areas of the Museum, but in every position I held, I was always writing the Met’s story. I was a speechwriter for eight years and a ghost writer for a lot of projects. I was constantly collaborating with the Met’s 102 curators and digging through the Met’s history to make the Museum’s storytelling work.

I also benefitted from starting my career at the Met during a completely analogue period. I often had to hand-deliver paper memos and documents around the Museum which taught me to navigate its four-block-long, two-block-deep, two-million-square-foot building. These errands also put me in direct proximity to some pretty extraordinary people. Metropolitan Stories takes place during that first decade of my tenure.

You wrote an essay on the Met that ran in the New York Times, which received a lot of attention. Were you already thinking about writing a novel set at the Met? What inspired Metropolitan Stories?

I thought about this novel for 23 years, but never wrote a single word until the Met gave me a yearlong sabbatical in 2017 to write it. The essay in the New York Times was the catalyst for that sabbatical, and I will always be grateful to Times editor Deborah Needleman for encouraging me to write it. It got a tremendous response, secured me an agent, and gave me the courage to take that year away from the Museum to get the ideas out of my head and on to the page.

The bizarre reality of that place was also a catalyst. Chapter 3, called “Musing,” begins with a real memo about Karl Lagerfeld bringing a muse to a meeting. When I first read that memo in the 1990s, my immediate response was to wonder “What if The Met’s Director showed up toting his own muse?”

Have you always been a writer, or did your Met experience inspire you to become one?

I didn’t set out to be a writer, but every job I ever had at The Met involved writing, from the very beginning when I drafted exhibition descriptions to later when I was a full-time speechwriter for the Director. I loved spinning my enthusiasm for the place into words. I got good at telling The Met story in tight prose and with a direct voice, drawn from the exceptional scholarship of our curators. My last project was drafting the wall text and labels for the new British Decorative Arts Galleries opening in 2020. The galleries cover 400 years—each century had to be described in only 200 words.

How did you come up with some of your ideas, such as using a chair’s point of view and building a hidden paper room?

Living in a museum every day allows you to see the place differently. You’re there when it’s empty, when all you hear are your own footsteps on the marble floors. That experience encourages an incredible intimacy with the art. You relax. You return to some objects often and start to think about them in a new way. Clearly, my imagination ran wild.

Chapter 2, titled “Chair as Hero” is written from the perspective of an 18th-century French chair in the Wrightsman Galleries. That idea—that objects carry memories and are witnesses to history—completely sums up how I feel about the works of art. They have survived and the people around them have not. We impose stories on these objects, but its worth wondering what the narrative would be from their vantage point. I chose that particular chair because it still has its original upholstery, which is very rare. I imagine the 18th-century dust still clinging to it.

Sometimes the idea finds itself in the writing. It is my favorite thing when the story takes over because your imagination wanders into something wonderful (like a hidden paper room). I don’t write with any kind of outline. I draft each chapter like an ink blot, and just let the text spread in any direction. Often that means starting with what will eventually become the ending or the middle—almost never the beginning. That technique may come from speechwriting where you tend to start with an ending and build a path to get there.

What was the research process for these stories? Was it mostly a matter of interviewing people who’d been at the Met a long time? Or did you have to explore the archives?

I didn’t really need to research it—I lived it. And the beauty of fiction is that you can make up what you don’t know. That said, on this particular topic, I happen to know a lot, so for the most part, I wrote from my own experience. Some particularly juicy details—addresses, names, correspondence—came from The Met’s Archives where I would poke around once I had an idea for a storyline. Just being in contact with those old documents—handwritten phone messages from the 1940s, odd complaint letters from visitors—was inspiring.

In general, I like to write about works of art from memory as that tends to bring out what really connects me to them. Then I visit the galleries to make sure I’ve got the visuals right (I somehow always get the scale wrong). There is one part of the book that takes place in the dusty storage tunnels beneath The Met. I hadn’t visited those tunnels for about a decade, so I had to go down there to remind myself of their peculiar atmosphere. The chapter called “Meats & Cheeses” was the result.

Sometimes I struggled to come up with names. In “Where We Keep the Light,” the chapter about the lampers (guys who change the lightbulbs), all the characters’ names are artists who are in The Met’s collection, but not on view in the galleries. That seemed appropriate for the lampers’ very behind-the scenes role.

What was your goal for readers, other than learning more about the wondrous world of the Met?

My book is about the Met, but it is also about the world of the imagination. I hope it gives readers another way to approach museums. Museum can be very intimidating. There is a sense that everyone knows what they’re doing but you. My message: Relax. Forget about what you don’t know. Trust your own instincts and find an object that speaks to you. Then spend some time with it—15 minutes—looking at it, asking questions of it, wondering about the decisions that the artist made to create it. What story might that object tell? Then leave. The most important part is to leave before you get overwhelmed.

I hope my book gets people to stop trying to conquer museums and to start just enjoying them on a very human level. The collapse of time that takes place in the Met’s galleries can be incredible comforting.

Are you working on another novel yet?

I left the Met in April to commit to writing full time, specifically another novel which started stewing in my head about 18 months ago. Hopefully, this one will not have a 23-year cooking time. I have it in my head but sometimes I don’t like to start putting anything on paper for a while. It’s in there, and I visit it from time to time. I find withholding is actually a productive part of the process. A lot happens in this period.

The next one will be about art and inevitably New York City (I am a non-negotiable New Yorker). But the art is the driving force, not the place. In Metropolitan Stories we never leave the Museum building, though plenty of New York comes inside.

For me, The Met will always be home. Many of my closest friends are still there. The works of art really sustain, replenish, and soothe me. I love the building too and usually give the stone walls a gentle pat as I enter. So not much has changed, except that I am writing in my own voice now.

Christine Coulson began her career at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1991 as a summer intern in the European Paintings Department. She returned in 1994 and, over the next 25 years, rose through the ranks of the Museum, working in the Development Office, the Director’s Office, and the Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts. She left the Met in April 2019 to write full-time.



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