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For most people, going to the National Gallery is a quiet experience. They contemplate old masterworks such as Leonardo’s portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci, or modern ones like Matisse’s La Négresse, oblivious to the technicians, curators, guards, restorers, gardeners, and movers who labor behind the scenes, greasing the wheels that keep the National Gallery running smoothly…and silently.
The Nine-Ton Cat: Behind the Scenes at an Art Museum by Peggy Thomson with Barbara Moore offers a peek through the looking glass at the lock-downs, move-ins, cleanups, and installations the public rarely gets a chance to see. Packed with photographs and factoids that chronicle the gallery’s day-to-day inner workings, but far slimmer and more playful than the Aztec stone jaguar that gave Thomson and Moore their title, Cat is a breezy read. But Carol Eron, who edited the book and is managing editor of the National Gallery’s History of Art series, says the book is meant for adults as well as kids, although it wasn’t originally planned that way.
“When this book came to me for editing, I sat down and read the manuscript straight through without stopping,” remembers Eron. “I fell in love with it, but I saw that there was one great problemthat it was intended solely for children. I told myself that this material was far too interesting to limit exclusively to children, so my efforts were to make changes so that adults were included in the mix.”
Eron also shaved the original manuscript down by half and helped the two writers focus it by paying as much attention to the practical mechanics of running a museum as to the philosophies that inform the gallery’s work.
Cat features anecdotes Thomson and Moore culled from staff during four years of research and writing that illustrate how each gallery division operates, including tales of how gallery curators preparing an Albert Bierstadt show found the painter’s Lake Lucerne, lost for over a century, just as their catalog was going to print; how designers hung Titian’s St. John the Evangelist on Patmos not on a wall but on the ceiling, so that visitors would see it overhead as it was first displayed 500 years ago; and why the museum’s textile conservation lab is stark white and crowded with insect trapsso any tapestry-chewing bugs (or their droppings) will be easily spotted and squashed.
Cat is only the most recent project Eron and Moore have worked on together. The two are collaborating on a CD-ROM about American art for kids, and after that, possibly, a book on color.