In the next, and meatiest episode, “All Things to All People?,” the Met is rocked to its very foundation. By early July 2020 the cultural sphere sees a backlash against the passive expressions of support for the Floyd protests that many arts institutions are posting online. Calls mount for these organizations to actively address the systemic racism, built into their structures over decades, if not centuries of discrimination on every front. It was asserted that, to begin with, museums needed to examine and rethink art acquisitions and exhibitions, the staging of permanent collections and the demographics of employees and boards of trustees.
“People are mad at the institution,” Weiss says, “and I did not fully see that coming” — sounding slightly naïve. But in fact, his leadership becomes more convincing as the film progresses. On July 6, the Met promises changes, publishes a statement enumerating in some detail the museum’s “commitment to antiracism, diversity and a stronger community.” Weiss reads a bit from the statement and points to a spreadsheet derived from it. “I said to everyone, if we don’t fill this out and complete it,” he says, “then I should be replaced. I look at this on a regular basis.”
The film presents glimpses of the Met shifting into action, awakening to the possibilities implicit in its collection. There are new hires, like the impressively credentialed Patricia Marroquin Norby, the museum’s first-ever full-time curator of Native American art. Contemporary artists devise ingenious ways to interact with the collection. Miguel Luciano, a Puerto Rican visual artist and New Yorker, who sees the Met’s pre-Columbian objects as “stolen,” is also grateful that they have been preserved, giving him a chance to study them. With the help of a 3-D printer, he copies a carved-wood Taino figure from around 1000 A.D., in Marge-Simpson bright blue plastic. People outside the museum will be able to touch it and if Luciano explains the object as lucidly as he does in the film, they may visit the museum to be blown away by the fierce beauty of the original.
“Inside the Met” also demonstrates that the museum has long had a loyal, diverse audience. In one of its sweetest, most illuminating sequences it follows a young Black mother from Connecticut, who grew up going to the Met when she returns with her two small daughters. We listen in as she coaches their looking, encourages their reactions and takes them through the Egyptian wing so they can see that they are “descended from kings and queens.”