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Off-Campus: Preserve and Protect

In this weekly feature, we will share our ideas for what you can do “off-campus” while the museum is closed. This week’s entry comes from Nicole M. Roylance, Coordinator of Public Education and Information.

“A tart, affectionate satire of the museum world’s bickering and scheming.” -The New York Times

Within almost every museum mission statement there is a promise to “preserve and protect” the works of art in the institution’s care. We agree that we will do our best to avoid breaking and prevent other people from breaking the priceless objects on display. This is why we seem so jittery when people thrust their fingers out towards a detail in a painting.

The opening paragraph of The Bowl Is Already Broken by Mary Kay Zuravleff reads like a horror story:

“When the dust was settled, there was only dust, and the Chinese bowl rested in pieces at the bottom of the museum steps. Experts had admired the bowl’s radiant white exterior as much as the decoration within, an elaborate scene of magpies lighting on plum branches in full flower. Unfortunately, the distinction between interior and exterior grew fainter with each step the vessel bounced. This morning’s tumble threw the magpies from their perches and reduced the plum branches to so much mulch, which was too bad, because only thirty minutes earlier, a dozen staff and dignitaries had gathered to welcome the porcelain into the museum’s permanent collection.”

The rest of the novel accounts for what brings the reader to this moment. The setting is a fictional Asian art museum on the National Mall (a thinly veiled version  of the Freer and Sackler Galleries, where Zuravleff used to work in the publications department). It is announced that budget cuts will turn the museum into a food court and the collection will be transferred to another institution along the Mall. How each member of staff responds to this news provides the drama for the novel. The pages seem to turn themselves as you meet the cast of characters that make up the museum staff.  As summer draws to a close, Zuravleff’s novel seems like the perfect last beach read.

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