The pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement and the larger political dysfunction of the 2020 election cycle almost certainly made director Ian Denyer’s three-hour documentary, “Inside the Met,” now streaming at pbs.org, a stronger, more substantial film. The documentary is framed by crisis, opening just before the pandemic hits and closing with the election of Joe Biden in November 2020. It feels like a bit of a palimpsest, with the residue of a simpler, more purely hagiographic film poking through now and then, despite an admirable focus on how the events of 2020 challenged the institution financially, culturally and intellectually. The opening of each of the three hour-long episodes reminds you of the Met’s size and scope — the largest museum in the Americas, five stories tall, four blocks long! — but this PBS-style breathless wonder soon gives way to substance.
The Met, like other cultural organizations, is confronting multiple challenges at once, some of which threaten not just its bottom line but its justification for existence. The pandemic hit the museum finances hard, leaving a $150 million hole in the budget, according to Met President Daniel H. Weiss, who appears a thoughtful leader and is disarmingly candid about his own learning curve during the Black Lives Matter protests of the summer.
Beyond the money, there is the art itself, much of which was created to flatter, perpetuate and justify power and privilege. Like other museums built up over the past century or more, the Met is also full of objects that have been ripped from their cultural context, sometimes by force or with little regard for the sacred, historical or cultural meaning they still hold for people who suffered the depredations of colonialism.
And the pandemic raised the larger question of basic social priorities. When your hospital system is overwhelmed, when millions of Americans lack access to basic health care, when bodies are stacked up like cordwood in freezer trucks because your government is run by fools, frauds and crooks, how do you justify the enormous outlay of philanthropic resources it takes to keep the Met running year after year?
Lovers of art often dismiss the question before giving it a serious reckoning. Denyer’s film barely grazes the edges of the dilemma. But some of the ordinary visitors to the Met who emerge as central characters in the film help point toward a more holistic justification for a giant art museum.
The film becomes genuinely compelling when it introduces Tracy-Ann Samuel, an African American mother of two daughters, a former New Yorker now living in Connecticut and a longtime and devoted visitor to the Met. We see her at home, and in her car, driving to the museum, while explaining the cultural complexity of raising two Black girls in a society where they are too often the only people of color in the room. How much does she tell them about the larger cultural turmoil around race and identity? And where in the Met can she find spaces that don’t belittle or marginalize her children?
“Right now, the struggle is about balance: How much do we want to expose our girls to?” Samuel says. But she also knows the Met and knows its collection.
“You have to know what you are looking for, but the Met does showcase power amongst people of color,” she says. At the Met, there is art from Egypt, art from Africa, art of the African diaspora. You just have to find it.
Another surprisingly dramatic scene focuses on a young woman taking her boyfriend to the museum, the classic Met “date night.” This could have been a frictionless, soft-focus moment, celebrating the nexus of love and art. But it underscores the deeper ways in which people use art to connect to others, establishing ongoing grounds for lifelong conversations, testing relationships and plumbing the depths of their own capacity for openness and self-articulation.
Latent in these scenes, perhaps, are some of the answers to that persistent and terrible question: How do we justify art when so much else is wrong in the world?
Denyer’s interviews don’t elicit solutions to the more pressing institutional crises, including the degree to which the entire framework and institutional structure of the museum encodes or perpetuates a colonial mentality toward art that wasn’t created by European men. The Met has been embroiled in repatriation disputes, and those will continue to pile up.
The acquisitions budget, frozen because of the pandemic financial losses, will force its leaders to make hard decisions about what kinds of art are valued and which audiences they want to serve. A commitment made in July to diversify its staff and pursue an anti-racist agenda is still in its early days. What matters, a year or a decade from now, is the power the staff has to steer discourse to art, artists and areas of research that have been previously neglected.
The film — along with many of the Met curators, staffers and leaders — lapses into rhetorical-question mode when pursuing these concerns. And in the background you can hear echoes of a familiar question during periods of conflict and evolution: How do we change without really changing? How do we do all these new things that people want us to do while still doing the things that are meaningful to us?
Although it was independently funded, this feels like an institutional film, designed to celebrate the Met. It is best when the narrator gets out of the way and lets the Met staff and visitors talk candidly. It doesn’t seriously examine the role of scholarship at the Met, and that is a telling lacuna. Although it touches on conservation, another essential function of the museum, it is easy to explain conservation to people in inspirational terms. This is all about passing down the treasures, the legacy of culture. But scholarship is an essential legacy of culture, too, and it is a difficult legacy to explain, not just to museum visitors but also to many people in museum leadership today.
Near the end of the third hour, the film takes up the position of the Met in the larger cultural ecosystem, and Kenneth Weine, the Met’s vice president of external affairs and chief communications officer, acknowledges that the real cultural decimation of the pandemic isn’t at giant institutions such as the Met but at smaller, more entrepreneurial organizations.
It is good to have someone put this on the table, but it would have been better had the filmmaker pressed that point a bit more authentically. The Met may have suffered financially, but what role should it play in service to other cultural organizations that don’t have a fraction of its resources?
“Inside the Met” earns its three-hour length. But the unexamined questions deserve at least another hour. Although critics of the Met are included, they are mainly thoughtful and reserved in their criticism. The sharper protests against “toxic philanthropy” that have bedeviled the Whitney and the Museum of Modern Art aren’t discussed. Nor is the too-close connection between wealthy donors and collectors and curatorial staffers. Recent efforts to sell holdings at the Baltimore Museum of Art and now at the Newark Museum of Art — actions that seriously undermine the cultural credibility of these institutions — should be a part of the conversation, too.
But one can’t deem a documentary a failure if it leaves you wanting more. And this film does that in a reasonably smart and dispassionate way.
Inside the Met (one hour) concludes Friday with Episode 3 at 9 p.m. on WETA and at 9:32 p.m. on MPT. Episodes 1 and 2 are available for streaming through June 18 at pbs.org.