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In her world, the museum is an endangered species

June 17, 2005|Bob Thompson | The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — You've got to love museums to spend nine years writing a book about one. And sure enough, Mary Kay Zuravleff makes her affection blisteringly clear.

On a sunny morning, the author of "The Bowl Is Already Broken" is conducting a quick-time march through the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and Freer Gallery of Art, the joined-at-the-hip institutions where she once worked and which she calls "the Museum of Asian Art" in her novel.

"Look at that!" she exclaims, gesturing toward a 15th-century Iranian manuscript illustration. "There is a vein in every leaf on every bush under every tree!"

And: "Look at his robe -- is his robe calligraphy?"

And a minute later: "How do you make a line like that? Can't use a single-hair brush because you can't get the capillary action -- you just get a blob. So you need at least two hairs."

Wonderful stuff, these miniature visions in watercolor, ink and gold. Too bad their days -- at least in Zuravleff's fictional museum complex -- are numbered.

The action of "The Bowl Is Already Broken" centers on a startling decision by bureaucrats in the Castle. (Zuravleff changed the Smithsonian's name but retained that of its distinctive administration building.) They've decided to ship the Asian art collections elsewhere and "reconfigure" the museum as "a food court worthy of our guests."

The decision shocks the museum's staff -- even those who'd watched these same bureaucrats in action at the Natural History Museum, "shipping the film collection off-site to make room for more movie theaters and enlarging the gift shop to fill the whole east wing." But what can they do? Asian Art's director throws up his hands and resigns.

This leaves acting director Promise Whittaker to pick up the pieces. Literally. Soon after she takes over, a curator drops a priceless Chinese porcelain bowl down a marble museum staircase. Hence the book's title, inspired by a Zen parable about how to live in a world of impermanence and loss: Even as one drinks from a favorite glass, one must accept that "the glass is already broken."

Hmmm.

Should we think of the Smithsonian itself as already broken? Has Zuravleff sketched a portrait of a great cultural institution nearing extinction, one whose old-fashioned values are fated to be smashed like broken porcelain? Stay tuned.

She's something of a work of art herself today, with her hennaed hair, black velvet jacket and bright red, sequined cowboy shirt. (Not an urban affectation, mind you: Zuravleff grew up an Oklahoma girl.)

She's remembering an earlier Sackler tour with her 4-year-old. "Because I want to look and she wants to run," she recalls, "I said to her: 'Find three things to show me and I'll find three things to show you.' " Her daughter rose to the challenge. "I have something for you to admire," she said. "Horses!"

And as Zuravleff turns a corner in an exhibit on Asian games, here they are again: earthenware ponies from China's Tang dynasty, playing polo. "Twelve hundred years ago somebody made this, and it's still here," she says, marveling at the thought.

Zuravleff was supposed to be an engineer, like her father and brother. "My Russian peasant people do not choose writing as a profession," she says. But after majoring in mathematics and English at Houston's Rice University, she rebelled, enrolling in the graduate writing program at Johns Hopkins University.

Moving to Washington in 1982, she eventually landed at the publications office of Sackler and Freer in 1988. Meanwhile, she was working on a novel whose main characters were engineers. After she published that book, "The Frequency of Souls," in 1996, she left the museum to write -- and to explore even more familiar territory.

This made her museum colleagues a bit nervous. "When she started writing," says chief curator Massumeh Farhad, "I thought, 'Oh, my God, I wonder who she's portrayed.' "

No one in "The Bowl Is Already Broken" is real. Farhad, who thinks Zuravleff showed "uncanny" skill in her evocation of the museum world, says she sometimes found herself thinking "that's so-and-so!" as she read, but really, the characters are at most composites.

The closest thing to an exception would be their old boss, Milo Beach. "A brain, a heart, courage, and a good eye -- these were rare qualities to find in a single museum director," Zuravleff writes of the Beach-like character R. Joseph Lattimore.

"I start my novels with a question," Zuravleff says, "and the question that starts this book is: What is valuable to you? And: What would you sacrifice to preserve that which is valuable?"

Plenty of relevance there for someone in charge of a museum, like Promise Whittaker, scholar and hardworking mom.

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