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Is the Met a Death Trap of Plummeting Sculpture? An Exhibit Designer Explains (Updated)

Photo-illustration: Everett Bogue; Photos: Retrofile/Getty Images, Courtesy of Metropolitan Museum


Last night's bizarre fall of a five-foot wide terra-cotta sculpture by Andrea della Robbia from the wall of the Metropolitan Museum's European Paintings wing has us a little bit worried. Does this happen a lot? Is the Met a death trap? Whose fault is this? And how on earth do they not know when it happened? We called Vulture brother Dennis Kois, a former exhibit designer at the Met and currently the director of the DeCordova Museum outside of Boston, to find out.

So seriously: Does this kind of thing happen all the time?
In major museums, rarely — the insurance values are so high that there's money to do the engineering studies in advance. But this is the second time in a couple of years that this has happened at the Met — a much larger sculpture came down a couple of years ago.

So what are they gonna do about it?
Given the scale and scope of how much stuff they put up and take down every year, I assume they'll be going back through their collection and doing a new engineering study. There are thousands and thousands of pieces, and it takes so little for this to happen — a few screws broken, or a bolt missing a stud in a wall.

The piece went up in 1996. Did you work there then?
I'm not sure. I think it was shortly before I joined the Met.

Is this your fault?
I'm sure it was not my fault. That phrase is being uttered in many quarters around the museum right now. There are so many people involved — conservators, designers, engineers…

How could they not know when it happened? Don't they have cameras everywhere?
No, definitely not. The galleries are as far from The Thomas Crown Affair as you can possibly imagine. There are some cameras at important access locations, but there aren't even motion detectors in every space, necessarily. Especially in a single ordinary gallery in a suite of galleries, probably surrounded by eight other rooms. I am surprised nobody heard it, though — it would echo incredibly through the institution. But everyone always forgets how big the Met is! Like ten years ago a worker fell through a shaft and died and nobody knew where he went for several days.

[Ed. update: After the Met objected to Dennis Kois's assertion that a workman's body was not found for several days, Kois confirmed that he misremembered the event. The workman's body was found the same day he fell.]

Earlier: Literally Breaking! Fifteenth-Century Terra-cotta Sculpture Falls Off Wall at Met