Thomas Campbell Unveils Metropolitan Museum's Islamic Galleries

Thomas Campbell. Jason Schmidt for Newsweek

Thomas Campbell, the director of the Metropolitan Museum in New York, might count as the ultimate egghead. When he first came to the Met as a curator, in the ’90s, to work on old-master hangings, the museum’s other scholars must have felt almost hip beside the Brit they called “Tapestry Tom.” It has now been three years since Campbell’s surprise elevation to director; though he has donned pinstripes, he still seems more suited to professorial tweed.

Sitting in his chambers in what is possibly the world’s greatest museum, Campbell speaks one bullet point at a time, in CEO mode, about every aspect of his job, now that he’s had time to settle in. He comes alive, however, when he shifts into scholarly gear, recounting the eureka moment when, as a swashbuckling young academic, he discovered tapestry was the new way to go. And then suddenly he’s back in the present he’s facing at the Met.

“I like to think that I’m trying to ride the crest of a wave,” says Campbell. “But of course the continuation of the metaphor is that one falls off at some point, which I’d prefer not to do ... It’s pretty intense, but it’s very exciting.”

Campbell grew up in Cambridge and studied at Oxford and the Courtauld Institute in London. His father was a businessman, in plastics, he says, “and that probably played a part in my becoming a scholar and art historian.” He was 46 years old when he took over at the Met in 2008 from the patrician Philippe de Montebello, who’d been in charge for three decades. “Philippe was world-famous—probably one of the great museum directors of all time—a very strong personality,” says Campbell, mild-mannered and slight, about 5 foot 7. “If I’d set out to try to emulate him, it would have been preposterous. I just get on with it.”

Back when Campbell started, the obvious worry was that “getting on with it” would tend toward the scholastic. Instead, these few years later, he finds himself fighting just the opposite concern. “It makes a great story to say, ‘Tom Campbell’s dumbing the institution down.’ But I don’t think that’s the case at all.” That story was told last spring by the critic Jed Perl. He argued that the new director’s emphasis on a Web-friendly “outreach” to visitors presents museums as “well-oiled corporate machines that downgrade the value of curators, not to mention the value of art.”

A first glance at Campbell’s most recent project—his first major mark on the museum—doesn’t conjure that image. He is celebrating the Nov. 1 launch of a new suite of galleries devoted to Islamic culture, and it is tasteful and substantial. “We’ve got the best collection of Islamic art in the Western world,” he says on a tour of the galleries. He points out a stunning Ottoman carpet, a great Persian miniature, and rare objects from medieval Spain. And there’s little sign around him of the stagy lighting, theme music, or other “enhancements” that certifiably dumbed-down museums resort to these days.

Campbell has allowed a few touchscreens to be installed in the galleries (“Technology is an integral part of all our visitors’ lives,” he insists), but they don’t show famous actors shilling for the art. “Ottoman census records for the 18th century indicate that about eighty to ninety thousand people lived in Damascus; most were Muslim, twelve percent were Christian and six percent were Jewish,” reads one sober screen, set beside a reconstructed Ottoman parlor.

Colleagues inside and outside the Met are singing Campbell’s praises. “He’s intelligent, hardworking, approachable, personable, thoughtful,” says Jim Cuno, a veteran director who now heads the great Getty complex in Los Angeles. (That “hardworking” part comes up again and again. Dan Brodsky, chair of the Met’s board, says he has to push Campbell to go on vacation.) At the other end of the pecking order, a junior scholar deep in the Met’s bowels calls himself a Campbell fan and cites the joy that curators felt when he was elevated to the top job.

And yet many Campbell supporters also voice some version of Perl’s worries. When Campbell promotes technology that will let visitors with smartphones look up masterpieces even as they view them, the phones can seem to matter more than the art. “You worry that the actual object will be lost in a sea of screens,” says that junior Met scholar.

In its last fiscal year, the Met pulled in a record 5.68 million people, as Campbell proudly declares. But when he trumpets the 660,000 who thronged to see the fashions of Alexander McQueen, a celebrity designer whom no one would compare to a master such as Christian Dior, it’s easy to imagine that he considers that minor exhibition three times better than one that draws a mere 200,000—for instance, a landmark hangings show once put on by a scholar called Tapestry Tom.

“All this talk of expanding audiences, of playing to the audience, to me is often a sort of undervaluing of the intelligence of the audience,” says Bruce Altshuler, director of the museum-studies program at New York University. “In the focus on the gate ... in the attempt to broaden the audience, there have been missteps,” he says, speaking of museums in general. He thinks a museum’s objects can resist an Internet-sped life.

Campbell agrees. “The strongest experience of being in a museum, the life-changing experience, is standing face to face with a work of art that for one reason or another hits you—a coup de foudre that knocks you out. We are all about making that happen.”