Last night I attended the Gibbes Museum of Art’s distinguished lecture series, a program that brings world-renowned artists, art collectors, museum leaders, and more to Charleston. Philippe de Montebello, the Metropolitan Museum’s longest serving director, spoke to a packed crowd at Memminger Auditorium about the multiple lives of works of art, i.e. restoration and re-use of really old paintings, sculptures, and buildings. 

Sitting in a creaky auditorium chair I couldn’t help but notice my fellow lecture attendees. A sea of well-dressed, white-haired men and women sat around me, murmuring excitedly to one another or reading the pamphlet we received at the door. Some people were even reading books to pass the time. I quietly put my cellphone away, feeling out of place. 

Gibbes board member and philanthropist Esther Ferguson introduced Mr. de Montebello and asked the audience to pause for a moment of silence for Parisians.

Philippe de Montebello was born in Paris and many of the art examples he showed us were from France which put an added emphasis on his speech — How do we preserve history, especially now, when it is being actively threatened, if not destroyed? 

De Montebello, a Harvard alum and the recipient of both the National Medal of Arts and the National Humanities Medal (those are awarded by standing U.S. presidents, FYI), flew through his speech, showing slides of art, clearly passionate about the subject. His energy was contagious and I found myself at the edge of my seat, amazed by the ways in which ancient pieces of art can change. 

De Montebello was quick to point out that museums, the mediums in which we peruse art today, are a very new concept in the scope of civilization, with western countries first constructing them just 250 years ago. Before the days of preservation and arts management — you can major in that at CofC — art was, as de Montebello said, subject to “the theater of the real world.” 

The most common causes of art destruction are natural disasters and iconoclasm — the intentional defacement of art for political or religious reasons (we’re talkin’ a lot of sculptures missing noses). Perhaps the most interesting part of de Montebello’s speech were the slides he showed of art that was restored and then, later, re-restored to match its former self.

For example: Google “Hatshepsut.” You’ll see varying images, from fully restored sculptures to almost totally destroyed ones. Hatshepsut was the queen of Egypt in 1478 B.C. and her successor, her nephew, destroyed all the sculptures of her. The Met went through various stages of restoring the sculpture they had, at first fixing it entirely, and then re-restoring it to look a little more destroyed.

With every new museum curator comes a new restoration and idea of how a work of art should look, so what you’re seeing are, indeed, multiple lives of art.

De Montebello closed with the image of a Neolithic pot, from around 5,000 B.C. He then showed us what became of the pot, under the hands of contemporary Chinese artist ai wei wei. I’ve found a similar example and included it here. De Montebello made no conclusions about this version of the pot, but the contrast of the two spoke for itself: Where do we go from here?

How do we fill a lecture hall with younger generations? The Gibbes is trying to answer that question with its renovations, which will include a first floor that is always free and open to the public, artists in residence actively working, a cafe, and classes for kids. 

Last night a man asked de Montebello why museum attendance has gone up in recent years (the Met saw a record-breaking 6.3 million visitors this year). The director said that he has never worried about numbers, but that he does worry about attendees’ lack of interest in older, European art. “It’s a sad thing that you can go up to European galleries and they aren’t full. People are into contemporary art,” he said.

With a collection focused mainly on 18th century American portraits and landscapes, The Gibbes may have to do more than sell sandwiches to bring in new visitors.