From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, New York
Long before the Night at the Museum films there were two children that spent several nights in a museum. Those two children were Claudia and Jamie Kincaid, from E. L. Konigsburg’s 1987 children’s fiction From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. With a day to spare in New York City, I decided to follow the footsteps of the two runaways to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Claudia plans to run away from home to teach her parents a lesson in “Claudia Appreciation.” (-haven’t we all had this thought?) She takes her younger brother Jamie with her because he has lots of money. Claudia chooses the MET as her destination because she is determined to live comfortably and elegantly. The children sleep each night in one of the elegant old beds in the English and French Furniture wing and spend their days attempting to learn about everything in the museum and exploring the restaurants, laundromats, and shops on the blocks surrounding the museum. When Claudia discovers a new statue at the museum, recently bought from the collection of a Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, she becomes obsessed with discovering the answer to the mystery surrounding the statue.
The moment I stepped off the bus in New York City it was apparent that some things had not changed since 1987. As the book opens Mrs. Frankweiler, the narrator of the story, explains why Claudia determines the city to be the perfect place to get lost. It is crowded, busy, elegant, and important. She also mentions that one of Claudia’s classmate’s mother refused to let her son join a field trip to the city because she “considered the air very bad for him to breathe.” All of these things are still true. The first thing I noticed was the very busy and crowded sidewalk. If you don’t move you might be trampled! I was traveling with 3 others and I was certain in moments I would be separated from them due to the masses of moving bodies. The second thing I noticed was a tightening in my lungs thanks to the over pollution of the city. My lungs threatened to close up shop until my weekend visit was over. Once over the initial shock of people and lack of fresh air, I was able to look around and see that just above all the heads and yellow taxis loomed buildings with important and elegant looking architecture. NYC definitely seems like a place one could get lost, but it has some redeeming qualities too.
One of these qualities includes providing cheap and all day entertainment in the form of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Natural History Museum. According to the book, in 1987 the MET was “free to all”. This is still true in a sense. The museums have a “suggested” ticket price, however you are free to name your own donation amount. (I’d highly suggest giving a donation of some amount, although as I work in a museum and know many educational facilities around the country are currently running on lacking funding, I might be a little bit biased.)
I only had a couple hours to spend at the MET, which I quickly determined was not enough time to view and understand the significance of any the artifacts displayed if I wanted to see more than a couple rooms. I’m not even sure living in the museum for a week, as did Claudia and Jamie, would have been enough time either. Claudia determined, in place of school lessons, that she and her brother should take the opportunity to learn everything in the museum during their stay. They chose one wing a day and eavesdropped on school group tours. Lacking in time, I decided to forego the audio tours so that I might move more quickly through the museum. I downloaded the suggested MET app to my iPhone in the hopes of finding a function that would allow me to search for background information by artifact number. No such luck. All I found was access to the audio tours. As I moved through the Egyptian wing I wondered whether foregoing the audio tour was a mistake. I found many of the display descriptions to be lacking in context information. It seemed to me they had displayed each and every small item found in the Egyptian tombs, but then rarely stated the use and context for the items. (If you’ve taken the audio tours, tell me in the comments below your thoughts on this matter.)
Our limited amount of time meant that we, unlike Claudia and Jamie, did not have time to sample the food options available both within the MET and in the neighboring vicinity. I can however suggest skipping the soft pretzels from the yellow carts that can be found on almost every street as well as scattered throughout Central Park. My pretzel was mostly dry. Definitely not worth the calories. What WAS worth the calories though, was our breakfast at a Le Pain Quotidien cafe. This cafe turned out to be just what we needed to start the day. The food was delicious, everything from the pastries to the filling breakfast menu items. It had a farm-to-table feel. I had a wonderful warm bowl of oatmeal with banana and maple syrup while Micah had toast with an avocado spread. (I was so hungry I finished mine before I thought to photograph it! Oops!) The atmosphere of the cafe was simple, rustic, and despite it being crowded it felt like we had just a little extra room to breathe compared to anywhere else we’d been in the city. The decor on the wall also gave it a relaxing American Southwestern vibe.
Back at the museum, Claudia found the perfect place to bed down each night. One of the elegant, although musty, four poster beds in the English and French furniture wing. This is my favorite wing in the entire museum, possibly because it’s as close as I can get in the United States to simulating touring a castle. The furniture is beautiful and yet the idea that people once lived within such elegant spaces, and carried out their daily tasks and hobbies sitting on or using furniture with gilt gold filigree boggles my mind. Were any of them clumsy or accident prone like myself? I don’t think I’d trust myself in that environment!
While the bed was nice and all, it was a different piece of furniture that caught my attention! Ohhh look! Old books! If I’d been Claudia I would have spent my week pouring over the old books in the cupboard at this desk.
Some of the rooms were lit only enough to simulate candlelight. (We found using the flashlight setting on our iPhones worked pretty well to read the display descriptions!) I noticed that the filigreed furniture threw awful shadows at which point I decided life by candlelight in a big castle might not have been that ideal. At the same time I realized life by candlelight in a museum after dark might be equally as frightening. As we moved from the furniture to the hall of medieval armor and weapons I was certain this was not a place I wanted to be walking in at night!
However if the lights came back on and everything sprang to life, I might rethink the last statement. Unfortunately for Claudia, she had no such luck with her statue. It maintained its stony silence and let her figure out its mystery all on her own.