Thomas P Campbell, Met Museum

In his handsome office overlooking the city skyline, Thomas P Campbell, the [Metropolitan] museum’s British director, 18 months into the most prestigious job in world culture, extends the joke, talking faux-ominously of the “security issues” that allowed the children to execute their prank.

But there is a serious issue at play. Museums are having to reinvent themselves in the 21st century as they compete with the dizzying variety of audio-visual stimuli on offer. As a portentous New York Times commentary put it on the announcement of Campbell’s surprise appointment nearly two years ago: “In a culture of American Idol and Damien Hirst, the Met can no longer rely on the singularity of its objects to justify its existence.”

Campbell, a slight, softly-spoken man, bridles slightly when I read him that remark – “What does that mean?” – before taking issue with it. “I think I’d almost claim the opposite. I’d say that in a world of mass-marketing and disposable digital imagery, the Met repository of some 2m objects spanning 5,000 years is ever more important as a place of reflection, as a place where you can get a bit of space to look at things that were hard-won, the product of art.

“Whether it’s the product of artisans working in age-old traditions, or great geniuses breaking new ground, I think you get a broader perspective here, that is ever more important in the modern world.”


Peter Aspden
Financial Times