Max Hollein im Museum

Retelling history

  • PHOTOS CLÉMENT PASCAL
  • INTERVIEW EVA MUNZ

Max Hollein is one of today’s most successful museum managers. The Viennese cosmopolitan is the director of New York’s Metropolitan Museum, where a Gerhard Richter restrospective opens in March.

Max Hollein has never shied away from major challenges in the art business. In Frankfurt, he assumed the dual role of artistic and commercial director of the Schirn art museum, the Städel museum and also the Liebieghaus. He then followed the pull of the Fine Arts Museum in San Francisco. Now Hollein, 50, is looking out over New York’s Central Park from his office at his new workplace – the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or Met, for short. It is one of the world’s foremost museums thanks to its collections spanning antiquity to the present, European art and the works of the indigenous nations of North America. Here, Hollein has taken on no lesser task than to make visible a new, non-linear perspective on history.

Classic museum fare

The Greek and Roman Art Galleries are central to the New York Met collection

Mr. Hollein, the Metropolitan Museum of Art will be a proud 150 years old this year. Are you planning to make a fuss?

First of all, it may be wise to take a European view of the anniversary, in which 150 is no age at all; positively youthful, in fact. I see it more as a starting point for a new cultural awareness. For me, it is important to show that the history of the Met is also the history of New York City. And this also reflects how museums in general have developed and which direction ours should take. We will be launching a string of projects, setting examples and providing inspiration. A 600-dollar development, the Modern Wing, is one of the projects currently in the planning.

Doesn’t New York already have enough first-rate museums and institutions devoted to contemporary art?

The Met was always a contemporary museum, although that doesn’t mean that what you can see here is primarily contemporary art, but rather that we always feel duty bound to also place the focus of our exhibits on the present. We express that with unconventional interventions. For instance, we commissioned the Kenyan-American artist Wangechi Mutu to liven up the Met’s facade on Fifth Avenue. Her modern bronze sculptures critique racial politics and gender roles. In this respect, our interactions with contemporary artists are sometimes actually bolder and more playful than in museums of modern art.

So far your work has tended to be informed more by today, tomorrow and day after tomorrow. Are you now planning to shine a new light on the past, to rewrite history?

I would say it is indeed our job to continue rewriting history, because history as we mostly present it takes a very one-sided perspective. In our American Wing, for example, there are some marvelous artworks, especially those dating from the 19th century – works by the Hudson River School and the painter Emanuel Leutze. But they depict only one story: that of the white settler. It’s our job to explain that these fantastic paintings were created from a very limited point of view. I often cite the film Rashomon by the Japanese director Akira Kuroswa. To my mind, it is one of the most important works in cinematic history because it shows how one and the same incident can be shown in different ways and how at the same time, the same facts give rise to completely new stories that exist alongside each other and are nevertheless true in their own way.

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Digital media gives us ways to impart knowledge to our visitors

Max Hollbein, director Met

Are you saying that art history as we know it is outdated?

We need to completely rethink our take on history so far. Encyclopedic museums, such as the Met, were born of the notion of enlightenment and have all more or less propagated a linear history of cultural development. As we live in a time of globalization, however, we have to realize that there is no such thing as a single linear history. At the Met, we will be exploring a whole set of intercultural relations between our galleries. One prime example of this is the room containing the medieval sculptures. For the first time, we decided not to take a purely Eurocentric view of these exhibits, but also to map the developments occurring in Asia and Africa during the same period.

You have a Gerhard Richter retrospective opening on Madison Avenue March 4. What makes him so relevant right now?

We want to celebrate Richter at a neuralgic point in his life and in the history of the Met. Time and again, Richter also calls for new perceptions of history. I would say that his last two groups of works, the Auschwitz Cycle and his squeegee paintings, are the very quintessence of his own oevre. The exhibition will not, however, be a classic retrospective. While it encompasses works from all of his creative periods since the 1960s, it will also address painting, reality, truth and the reproducibility of realities, the core themes of our work, in fact.

The current exhibition, The Last Knight, includes suits of armor. What can they teach us about today?

The suit of armor belonging to England’s King Henry VIII, for example, is not merely a specimen of outstanding craftsmanship, but above all, propaganda. It was forged especially for Henry’s great military campaign against France. Henry VIII suffered from severe gout and was unable to wear any armor at all, let alone sit astride a horse. It was a propaganda tool designed to intimidate France. When George W. Bush declared the end of the second Iraq war from an aircraft carrier in 2003, he was wearing fighter pilot gear. Objects and gestures from the past often enter into a dialogue with the present.

Traditional exhibits: European sculptures in the museum’s Petrie Court

Digital technologies play a major role in your work. Would you attribute your fascination for them to your time in San Francisco, when you were within striking distance of Silicon Valley?

Digital technologies have always interested me, and cultural institutions should reflect the times in which we live. I worked to achieve that at the Schirn in Frankfurt, and in San Francisco, I was able to work even more closely with the digital scene. Digital media give us far more exciting ways to impart knowledge and context to our visitors. It has always surprised me that most people come wholly unprepared. They look at a wall plaque and read: Rembrandt – okay. Where did he live? When? We now offer online multimedia segments for people to view before they come and so enrich their experience at the museum.

Can you name specific applications we can look forward to?

At the Met, we have one of the largest costume collections in the world, but a garment loses most of its artistic expression the moment it is installed in a museum and not worn on a body. With new body-scanning technologies and virtual reality, we will in the future be able to “dress” our visitors in these historical costumes using projection so that they can experience how it feels to wear them and how they work.

If all forms of art can be found online, why go to a museum?

Our experience shows that these technologies don’t devalue a museum visit; they enrich it, and fundamentally broaden our perception of art. This certainly has nothing to do with museums today being places proving a profound experience of other cultures, say. A museum is a place of deceleration, if I may use a buzzword, and that’s what people long for. The average duration of a museum visit has barely changed in the past 30 or 40 years. Television is suffering from dwindling attention, newspapers are no longer read as much as they used to be. People are still going to the opera, theater and cinema, but the social pressure to stay put is also far greater – people notice if you leave your seat and squeeze past them in the dark, but no one stands at the museum door, asking: Oh, are you going already?

The man from the Met: Max Hollein with treasures from the antiquities collection

What are your favorite places at the Met?

I love standing in the Great Hall on rainy Sunday afternoons, when it’s so crowded you don’t know which way to turn. It’s also an experience to wander through the rooms alone at the end of the day. My favorites are the Period Rooms, the self-portrayal rooms of American art lovers of the early 20th century. They are time capsules of political incorrectness – collectors’ lives, shaped by luxury and longing into a total work of art.

Do you remember the first time you visited the Met?

There are photos my parents took; I must have been about nine. My father was building the Felgen Gallery at the time, so we were often here. But my memory is only based on these photos.