Inside Scoop: Museum Novelist Has Connections

By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 19, 2005

You've got to love museums to spend nine years writing a book about one. And sure enough, Mary Kay Zuravleff makes her affection blisteringly clear.

On a sunny May morning, the author of "The Bowl Is Already Broken" is conducting a quick-time march through the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and Freer Gallery of Art, the joined-at-the-hip institutions where she once worked and which she calls "the Museum of Asian Art" in her novel. "Look at that!" she exclaims, gesturing toward a 15th-century Iranian manuscript illustration. "There is a vein in every leaf on every bush under every tree!"

And: "Look at his robe -- is his robe calligraphy?"

And, a minute later: "How do you make a line like that? Can't use a single-hair brush because you can't get the capillary action -- you just get a blob. So you need at least two hairs."

Wonderful stuff, these miniature visions in watercolor, ink and gold. Too bad their days -- at least in Zuravleff's fictional museum complex -- are numbered.

The action of "The Bowl Is Already Broken" centers on a startling decision by bureaucrats in the Castle. (Zuravleff changed the Smithsonian's name but retained that of its distinctive administration building.) They've decided to ship the Asian art collections elsewhere and "reconfigure" the museum as "a food court worthy of our guests." Goodbye, Central Asian miniatures and South Asian statues of Nandi the bull; hello, restaurants named Wok On and trash cans shaped like Fu dogs.

The decision shocks the museum's staff -- even those who'd watched these same bureaucrats in action at the Natural History Museum, "shipping the film collection off-site to make room for more movie theaters and enlarging the gift shop to fill the whole east wing." But what can they do? Asian Art's director throws up his hands and resigns to pursue his own research.

This leaves acting director Promise Whittaker to pick up the pieces. Literally. Not long after Whittaker takes over, one of her curators drops a priceless Chinese porcelain bowl down a marble museum staircase. Hence the book's title, inspired by a Zen parable about how to live in a world of impermanence and loss: Even as one drinks from a favorite glass, one must understand that "the glass is already broken."


Should we think of the Smithsonian itself as already broken? Has Zuravleff sketched a portrait of a great cultural institution nearing extinction, one whose old-fashioned values are fated to be smashed like broken porcelain? Stay tuned.

She's something of a work of art herself today, with her hennaed hair, black velvet jacket and bright red, sequined cowboy shirt. (Not an urban affectation, mind you: Zuravleff grew up an Oklahoma girl.) A mother of two, she's remembering an earlier Sackler tour with her 4-year-old. "Because I want to look and she wants to run," she recalls, "I said to her: 'Find three things to show me and I'll find three things to show you.' "

Her daughter rose to the challenge. "I have something for you to admire," she said. "Horses!"

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