The Ultimate Culture Guide 2009: D

Deceptive Beauty?

Did German archaeologists mislead Egyptian officials in 1913 to effectively smuggle out the famous bust of Queen Nefertiti? That’s what a recently unearthed document claims, and Cairo is using the find to step up its case for the return of the 3,400-year-old painted limestone sculpture of Akhenaton’s wife, sometimes called the most beautiful woman from the ancient world. (That lissome neck! Those cheekbones!) Certainly the most celebrated piece in Berlin’s Egyptian collections, the bust will soon move to the Neues Museum, which reopens in October after a decade-long, $250 million renovation by British architect David Chipperfield.

The Director

Among the dozens of high-profile national pavilions at this year’s Venice Biennale (June 7–November 22), none is more anticipated than Britain’s, featuring the work of 40-year-old filmmaker Steve McQueen. Last year the 1999 Turner Prize winner released his feature-length debut, Hunger, an uncompromising depiction of the last months of IRA member Bobby Sands, who starved himself to death in jail after the British government refused to grant him political prisoner status. Hard-hitting but apolitical, the film got McQueen the coveted Camera d’Or at Cannes. As for what McQueen does as a follow-up act in Venice, at presstime he was still playing coy.

Deconstructing Tom

When New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art tapped Thomas Campbell to be its next director last fall, nobody saw it coming. The 46-year-old British tapestries specialist must fill the august shoes of Philippe de Montebello, whose 31-year tenure included nearly doubling the museum’s gallery spaces and growing the endowment to $2.5 billion. Campbell, who joined the Met in 1995 and is best known for a pair of shows on Renaissance and Baroque tapestries, is by all accounts passionate and thoughtful—if publicly guarded during his early days in the post. In a moment of candor, he told The Economist he felt like a kid in a candy store. Most intriguingly, he revealed to The Guardian that he listens to the techno-rock band Pendulum. “I’ve got everything from Palestrina to Sid Vicious on my iPod,” he told us when we spoke to him recently about his musical tastes—and a few other subjects.

On his predecessor: “Philippe de Montebello has rightly been lauded as one of the greatest museum directors ever. I’m a product of years of working at the Met during his tenure, and I share the values that he championed. Equally, there are always things that can be improved and refreshed, albeit by a process of evolution rather than revolution.

On contemporary art at the Met: “The experience of seeing contemporary art at this museum is very different from seeing it at, say, MoMA or Dia. Here it is shown in the context of great art of the past, for better or worse. The museum has been collecting contemporary art from the beginning, and it will remain part of our mission, albeit in proportion to the rest of our holdings.”

On the collection: “Museums have become more dependent on special exhibitions to attract audiences. I want to make sure we bring equal creativity and energy to our permanent collections. The ‘Arts of the Ming Dynasty’ exhibition [through September 13] is full of incredible treasures drawn from our own holdings of Chinese art. We have one of the richest encyclopedic collections in the world, and there are so many stories to tell around it.”

On the antiquities disputes: “The Met is proud of the role it has played in developing the field and study of ancient art. We have received a certain amount of criticism in recent years for a few well-publicized cases of acquiring objects with dubious provenance. What I want to work on now is moving beyond the polarized terms in which the discussion has all too often been portrayed. I have every intention of building on the good relationships we enjoy with the countries from which antiquities derive.”