The Magazine

Blockbuster Brown

The man who made museums what they are today.

Nov 25, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 11 • By AMY HENDERSON
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In the 1970s and ’80s, American museums reinvented themselves as dazzling arenas of art and culture. Sacred temples of tradition suddenly heard the siren call of show business: Spectacular exhibitions took center stage, and museums became the most exciting sites in town, with visitors flocking (and often waiting in line for hours) to glimpse the wonders within. In his hefty new study of this transformation, Neil Harris credits the rise of a “museum age” to the huge spurt in attendance, large-scale media interest, and new funding sources sparked by this ballyhoo.  

J. Carter Brown, 1985

J. Carter Brown, 1985

Time & Life Pictures / Getty Images

The chief impresario of this new era was J. Carter Brown (1934-2002). As director of the National Gallery from 1969 to 1992, Brown not only suited the cultural moment, he helped create it. He made the gallery an internationally respected institution by embracing the idea of art as a public right. In Capital Culture, Harris argues that Brown’s blend of “glamour, intellectuality, social privilege, and high-mindedness” made him the perfect personality to lead museums into a wonderland of glitz, glamour, and enterprise.

Harris, the Preston and Sterling Morton professor emeritus of history and art history at the University of Chicago, writes from a highly informed position. His scholarship has ranged from a biography of P. T. Barnum to a study of cultural taste in modern America; but he is also well-acquainted with behind-the-scenes Washington museum life. A member of an important Smithsonian advisory council from 1978 to 1991, Harris capitalizes on his connection to illustrate how the rivalry between Brown’s National Gallery and S. Dillon Ripley’s Smithsonian Institution helped propel the age of the blockbuster exhibition.

“Treasures of Tutankhamun” (1976-77) was the first exhibition to be deemed a “blockbuster,” and its arrival at the National Gallery was a stunning proclamation that a new day had arrived in museum life. It was also a signal to other high-on-the-radar museums that the National Gallery was now a significant cultural force. That it beat out Thomas Hoving’s Metropolitan Museum for the Tut extravaganza speaks to Brown’s ability as a cultural diplomat—he involved both President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in landing the exhibition—and his fierce ambition. Brown happily admitted that he loved “the chase” as well as the spectacle, and Hoving later confessed that he had “watched, grinding my teeth, as Carter Brown plucked show after show away from me.” 

By sending a shock wave into modern museum life, the Tut exhibition elevated the National Gallery into the cultural stratosphere. And the wow factor radiated from every stage of the exhibition’s life, beginning with the press preview, where Brown dramatically revealed Tut’s stunning golden burial mask. Later, the star-studded opening-night gala glowed with the gallery’s new stature as a cultural megaplayer: Effusive reviews extolled the exhibition’s “captivating and bedazzling” installation and design. Harris points out that the amount of attention paid to design reflected two themes essential in the new age of museums:  “A growing sensitivity to the aesthetics of display and the increasing centrality of the museum experience to a broader public.”  

One of the Tut exhibition designers who is now the gallery’s chief of design, Mark Leithauser, has told me that size had very little to do with Tut being a blockbuster, as there were only 55 objects in the show. Rather, excitement was generated both by the wondrous spectacle of the objects themselves and by Brown’s extraordinary showmanship. 

Brown enthused about “the sheer visual quality of the objects” and their “breathtaking age.” He also credited the remarkable installation, which captured “the treasure-hunt aspect” of the Tut tomb’s discovery. He enjoyed “the pageantry and excitement of the great exhibition” and increasingly poured his energies and imagination into shows that would increase the gallery’s attendance. To a publicity-savvy director, soaring attendance meant increased national publicity and international prestige. In the high-stakes cultural world, status counts big time.