I recently finished reading Thomas Hoving’s memoir, Making the Mummies Dance. Hoving was director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art from 1967 to 1977. He was a fascinating, polarizing figure, and passed away in 2009; his obituary in the New York Times is a thoughtful summation of his life and work.

Hoving had clear, definite opinions about nearly everything. I would highly recommend reading this book; it’s by turns fascinating, horrifying, hilarious, and charming. There’s something in there for everyone to like, and for everyone to hate.

One passage in particular really jumped out at me. Hoving had just finalized the purchase of a seminal work by Velazquez, Juan de Pareja, for the record price of just over $5.5 million, and his director of education, Harry Parker, was not pleased.

I told [chairman of the board of trustees, Douglas] Dillon that Harry Parker and his group would want to be reassured that the priorities of the museum were not changing with such an expenditure.

“One would think that the acquisition of such a world masterpiece is in itself the nucleus of the educational process,” Dillon observed.

But when I told Harry Parker, he flew into a rage. “I cannot believe this!” he cried. You have in one stupid stroke lost millions for this institution! I find this purchase inexplicable and outrageous and indelibly damaging to the museum.”

I chewed him out. “People don’t give a damn what the Rembrandt cost,” I said, “or what the Canova cost, what the Raphael cost, what the Unicorn Tapestries cost – all they care about is that these beautiful, powerful things enhance their lives. They are proud that the museum owns them. Someday you’ll learn that sure, education, outreach programs, liaison with colleges and universities, publishing books and articles is important – but they all pale in comparison to collecting treasures. Collecting is still what it’s all about. Collecting is why people come in the doors. The Juan de Pareja will be the biggest piece of education material you’ve got going for you. The point is – and someday you’ll experience it yourself – that you have to have the guts to reach out and grab for the very best!”

The meeting ended. Harry Parker left, his face black with anger.

The purchase of Juan de Pareja was almost exactly forty years ago. There’s a lot going on in what Hoving – and Parker – say here (or to be more accurate, what Hoving recalls them saying, twenty years later). How much of it is still true? How much of it do you agree or disagree with?

Is collecting still what it’s all about? Do museums exist to collect treasures?

Are these treasures the biggest pieces of educational materials that museums have? Do a museum’s objects have to be “treasures” in order to educate appropriately?

What else would you do with $5.5 million – do you think it’s fair or smart to spend that money on one piece of art?

(For the record, I very strongly disagree with Hoving in this passage; museums are educational institutions before they are collecting ones for me, but there is some truth to what he says. A museum’s collections – whether “treasures” or more ordinary objects – are its greatest educational assets.)