9 Museum Secrets You Should Know

Behind-the-scenes facts from curators and conservators

Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan
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Dan Brown author of The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons has made a fortune playing with our curiosity about what goes on behind-the-scenes of a museum. For visitors, there's always something mysterious about the knowledge held by curators and conservators. For people who work in museums, the behind-the-scenes access, particularly in the morning and evening hours when the museum is closed to the public, is truly one of the perks of the job. Here's a short round-up of the things that museum curators, educators and gallery guards know that the public often wonders about.

I'll start with the biggest bombshell of all.

  • Flashes don't actually hurt the art. Conservators have been telling the public this for decades. In truth, flash photography is rude and annoying and has a negative impact on the visitor experience. Imagine if there was a sign in place that requested people not use their camera flash simply because it was unpleasant. Everyone would definitely ignore it. But the idea that it is harmful to the art actually seems to work. So even though you know the truth, please, never ever use a flash.
  • Museums all have fakes in their collections. Any work of art when it was initially purchased by a museum was believed to be real and authentic. Nobody sets out to buy a fake work of art. Major purchases always take a long time and require not only rigorous investigation by curators, scholars, experts and conservators, but the museum's board will usually want to see all the evidence for purchase well proven and documented Still, art forgers are usually on the cutting edge of scholarship and technology and they well know what the experts what the experts will do to authenticate a piece of art. (They also are well aware of the trends and tastes of collectors with the deepest pockets and will create things that will specifically attract them.) As such, fakes inevitably slip the cracks and most museums have more than a few duds in the vault.  Often a new piece of scholarship will reveal something new about a work or an artist. Other times, the forger is caught and then any other piece connected to them is reexamined. When a work is discovered as fake, it is usually taken off of view quickly. However, there are cases where the work of art is built into the structure of the building as is the case at The Met Cloisters. Look closely at the lion fountain at the entrance to the Cuxa cloister. It says "Romanesque Style, 19th century." That's when it is believed the fake was made. 
  • Admission tickets doesn't nearly cover the cost of running a museum. While admission tickets are an important revenue source, admission usually only covers about 30% of the museums costs which include staff, cleaning, marketing, security, gas, electric, etc. That's why ...
  • The gift shop is usually a museum's biggest revenue source. So by all means, buy as many Monet mugs and van Gogh magnets as you like. The money all serves a good cause and is very much appreciated. 
  • Museums are thinking about the future as much as the past. Even though museums are most often containers for historic objects, the museum's development staff is constantly thinking about the future of the museum and how to fund it. In the United States, private philanthropy is the most important source of money. So while the curators might be dreaming about the library at Alexandria, the development staff is watching trends and people. They're following Silicon Valley billionaires on Twitter and taking note of their collecting habits. The personal tastes of today's wealthiest people will have an enormous impact on a museum 30-50 years into the future.
  • Yes, museums have 24 hour security. The most famous art theft in the United States, the heist at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston happened at night. Like any building, a museum is most susceptible to break-ins late at night when everyone is asleep. But insurance companies usually require that museum objects be protected at all times. The night staff is usually smaller as they don't have to handle visitors, but they have specific drills and tasks that are unique to guarding works of art at night so that there is never a moment where the collection is vulnerable to theft.
  • There is a lot of stuff in storage at nearly every museum. Big museums like The Met have works of art stuffed behind the gallery walls and every department has much more in their collection that what is actually on display in the galleries. A curators job is to use the collection to tell a story for the museum visitor. Sometimes a work that doesn't fall into a cohesive narrative get relegated to storage. Sometimes works of art are off-display because they require more study or need to be fixed or cleaned. And, it's often the case that there just isn't enough room so works will rotate on-and-off view or only come out for special exhibitions. 
  • Works of art travel with couriers. People often wonder how famous works of art are shipped when they travel for special exhibitions. While the overall answer is "very carefully" each has its own unique set of conditions whether it be by cargo plane, ship or sitting on the lap of a courier. No matter what, works of art are accompanied by experts who ensure their safe passage from door-to-door.
  • Finally, there is a lot a museum doesn't know about its own collection and that's ok. While lecturing in the museums, guests have often pressed me for firm answers to questions like "how long did it take to weave the Unicorn Tapestries?" When I reply that nobody knows for sure, we can only guess, people often become frustrated because they want a clear answer. In truth, much of history scholarship is an assembly of careful, educated guesses. Beyond the realm of contemporary art, scholars are often dealing with fragments, things that were lost in wars, things that were stolen at some point and things that fell over. Firm answers about an objects history are elusive though scholars are constantly chasing the answers. Sometimes the question is as compelling as the object itself. And that's the heart of why we love a good museum mystery!
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