Sculpting museums

In his book 'The Exhibitionist: Living Museums, Loving Museums,' provides significant insight into the work of the people who make museums and art institutions what they really are.

The entrance pavilion at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The entrance pavilion at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
I admit with some embarrassment that Karl Katz’s name was unknown to me before I read his book The Exhibitionist: Living Museums, Loving Museums.
Katz played a pivotal role in creating many museums I have visited – the Israel Museum, Tower of David Museum and Beit Hatfutsot in Israel, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Jewish Museum and the International Center for Photography in New York City – and several I haven’t visited, such as the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles and the P.T. Barnum Museum in Bridgeport, Connecticut.
Apparently I’m not alone in my ignorance.
Katz explains that museum designers, directors and curators often remain anonymous – even unappreciated – once their work is done and their creations not only hog the spotlight but evolve ever farther from their creators over time.
The Brooklyn-born Katz, a product of the Yeshiva of Flatbush and Columbia University, may not be a household name, but he is no shrinking violet.
During his 60-year career, he counted among his close friends and associates such personalities as Gen. Yigael Yadin, Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek, publisher and philanthropist Walter Annenberg, musical legend Richard Rodgers and former US first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (it was at Katz’s Manhattan home that Onassis’s daughter, Caroline Kennedy, met her future husband, museum designer Ed Schlossberg). He met with Queen Elizabeth II and was knighted by Queen Margrethe II of Denmark.
When Katz arrived in Jerusalem in 1955 as an archeological fellow at the American Schools of Oriental Research, the eastern half of the Holy City was inaccessible to Israelis and he “couldn’t see anything dating earlier than about the mid-1800s.”
In 1958, he was invited to co-head the team that created the Israel Museum, having by that time become the world’s youngest head of a national museum, the forerunner of the Israel Museum located at the Bezalel Institute in Jerusalem.
Seven years of hard work and schnorring abroad preceded the grand opening.
Kollek suggested asking for only one work of art from each donor.
“To ask for a single fine piece could press our story home in a way that seeking entire collections never could: with just one work of art, donors could leave a piece of themselves in Jerusalem in perpetuity,” Katz writes.
Some donors looked upon the museum as a sort of Third Temple to which they could give an “offering,” meaning a significant work of art, “realizing the biblical mandate in a contemporary, secular way.”
Among Katz’s most prized acquisitions were the carved wooden ark doors from Cairo’s Ben Ezra Synagogue, dating from the time of Maimonides.
Anyone familiar with the popularity of the Israel Museum’s Youth Wing will be surprised to learn that Katz nearly lost his job due to his insistence on having a children’s pavilion included in the architectural plan. And he nearly lost his mind negotiating between the eccentric personalities involved in creating the Billy Rose Art Garden (“art,” rather than “sculpture,” to assuage Jewish traditionalists).
How many of us recall that the Israel Museum was bombed during the Six Day War? A crew of guards and secretaries carried all the pieces to safety in an underground shelter.
Katz’s eloquent passage describing his first walk in the Old City is particularly striking, considering that he had long since strayed from Orthodoxy.
“Without ever having seen it in person, I knew the route to the Western Wall as if I had practiced it dozens of times, as if the directions had been committed to some primitive memory, waiting for this very moment. I felt as if I were taking my first steps in a pair of shoes with wings.”
But by the following year, Katz was ready to move on. Like his later successor at the Israel Museum, James Snyder, Katz never formally made aliya and remained a New Yorker at heart.
He took on the directorship of Manhattan’s Jewish Museum as it was undergoing an identity crisis – was it more Jewish or more museum? – and left in 1971 following a tumultuous tenure. He returned to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he’d gotten his first job in 1953, as chairman for exhibitions and loans.
In the 1970s, Katz’s idea of widening the appeal of museums by introducing visual media into the staid and hushed halls was radical. Today, thanks in large part to his efforts in the United States and Israel, museums are interactive, multimedia institutions.
Media became Katz’s overriding passion. In 1991 he started his own company, MUSE Film and Television.
Though The Exhibitionist is marred by misspellings and typos, it provides a precious firsthand look at the costly, difficult work involved in planning and maintaining museums – down to the number of benches and bathrooms – to which the public will return again and again.
Katz is quite justified in writing that “[T]he story of where and how my personal history has intersected with the histories of some great museums is a narrative field guide on how to make museums come alive.