FORTUNE – You could probably earn a Ph.D. working with just one piece out of the hundreds of thousands on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art any given day.
But it's bad business if visitors need an art history degree to have a good time at the museum. No one knows this better than Thomas Campbell, who moved up from his position as a textile curator to direct the museum in September 2008, about a week before the economy took a plunge.
Right after he took the job, the Met froze hiring, laid off roughly 15% of its staff, and its total endowment funds dropped by about a quarter of its value. To maintain the Met's cultural relevance, Campbell believes he's going to have to broaden its appeal.
Luckily, he says, he's got some very appealing material to work with. "I think great works of art, or even very just very humble objects, connect you through time and space with people who might have been living in very different times but often with very similar hopes and dreams." The plan is to help people, anyone really, draw those connections to the here and now. Some of the Met's numbers are looking up. Last year, it pulled a record attendance of over 5.6 million people.
Campbell talks to Fortune about how he was first wowed by the world of tapestries, how catering to curators can be like herding cats, and why parts of the great museum were a bit like the Tower of Babel. An edited transcript is below.
Fortune: What drew you to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the first place?
Thomas Campbell: Broadly, philosophically, I was a tapestry scholar, and I came to the Met because I saw it as a place where I could organize big exhibitions that would have real scholarly clout but at the same time where I would have a broad general audience.
I truly believe that the Met was set up as an educational institution, and not just as an American museum but a museum of all cultures. In the current world, that vision is as relevant as ever. Whether it's trouble in Cairo or in Syria, these are present day manifestations in some cases of issues that go back centuries, and you know, in our galleries you can kind of unpack some of this and get a broader understanding of the complexity of the present and of the past and the way it's all linked. More
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