A New Calling

Weatherside, by Andrew Wyeth

Curator John Coffey’s remarks on the cell phone tour make the house in Andrew Newell Wyeth’s Weatherside (1965) come alive. He points out “the little specks of red in Christina’s window”—the geraniums that she always loved—and the tiny knot on the clothesline that show Wyeth’s obsession with detail.

Three thousand, eight hundred and thirty-six works of art. Five thousand years of history. What daunting numbers! How can anyone—visitor, member, newcomer—get a grip on the sheer vastness of the NCMA’s collection?

As a new editor at the Museum, I knew I had a lot to learn. (I’m a newspaper veteran, not an art historian.) In my first days on the job, I’d hear coworkers rattling on about “the Steinkamp” or “the Archipenko.” I would nod sagely. Back at my desk, I’d look up those names in the Museum database. Aha! The Steinkamp is not some intimidating thing—it’s that flowing, ever-changing tree image projected on a wall of West Building. And the Archipenko is, of course, the Blue Dancer, balancing tirelessly on one pointed toe.

Well, two down, 3,834 to go.

Fortunately, I learned early on, not all of the Museum’s art is on display at once. For the moment I’d forget about the works in storage and focus on the 700 or so I could see.

And fortunately our curators and educators hadn’t left me to learn on my own. Before the new galleries opened, they had put together a cell phone tour to guide me—or any visitor—to some of the Museum’s highlights. Press 236 in the African gallery, and I could hear Ledelle Moe telling how she sculpted each head in Congregation. Or press 235 near the Krater, and curator Mary Ellen Soles tells about “the great intellectual drinking parties of ancient Greece.”

Listening and looking became my favorite part of the new job. When I had a bit of time to spare, I’d head to the galleries, check out an audio wand, and scope out a painting or two. Exploring reassured me that my ignorance was not total: amid the mysteries I found old friends Degas and Wyeth and O’Keeffe—oh, and have you heard, we have Rodins?

So, four months I’ve been here now. A couple of newspaper friends came by for lunch, and when we finished I led them into the galleries.

“You’ve got to see this,” I urged. “Lines That Link Humanity. By a Ghanaian artist, El Anatsui. Isn’t it amazing? He made it of old liquor bottle labels and even pieces of old newspaper printing plates—thousands of them.—And look, over here, this is the Steinkamp­—”

“You really know your art!” one friend exclaimed.

“Well,” I replied, “I’ve been keeping an ear out.”


Listen to remarks by curators, educators, and scholars using your own cell phone in the galleries, gardens, or Museum Park. Or check out an audio wand at the Information Desk for $3 (free for NCMA members). To listen on your own MP3 player, download the Cell Phone Tour.


  1. Beverly Brown
    Posted July 23, 2010 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

    What a nice post! That’s kind of how I felt last weekend when my family visited the museum for the first time since it re-opened. Very impressive new digs to display all of that amazing art.

  2. Katie Mosher Patterson
    Posted July 23, 2010 at 8:44 pm | Permalink

    I can’t believe I have not been to the museum since the new building opened. Thanks for the inspiration to get planning!

  3. Candace Marles
    Posted July 23, 2010 at 10:29 pm | Permalink

    Great post! I’ve been to the new building and very much enjoyed it. Next time I’ll know to use the audio guides. (And I *was* amazed to see the Rodins!)

  4. Millicent Brown Fauntleroy
    Posted July 23, 2010 at 10:52 pm | Permalink

    Nice work, Laurie. The Archipenko, as you have heard many times by now, is my favorite. In fact, I wore my pin of the sculpture just yesterday. This is a timely post for me; I had already planned to be at the museum either Saturday or Sunday to give the place a more thorough look-see after my hasty visit in April. After all, I renewed my membership. I must make good use of it in the gift shop.
    I keep hoping to be able to bring my grandchildren to one of the Saturday children’s events, but they fill up so fast

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