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Hamlet thought he could do it. The prince believed he could exert control over the narrative of his life’s major events and the part he played in their grim culmination. After dispatching the king and queen, with his last few breaths he declares, “the rest is silence.” Of course it is not. Horatio, Fortinbras and the Ambassador parley, and Horatio promises to disclose the full tale of Hamlet’s demise to those who don’t yet know it. Hamlet’s effort to have the last word is consistent with his character: overly ambitious, arrogant in his narcissism, but also deeply convinced that some essential part of him exists in the story.
The public relations revolution of the past generation has made this conviction gospel — particularly for those who have a public persona that is crucial to their livelihood. If you are to be a successful politician, religious organization, defendant, or movement, you must manage the story that is being told about you. Managing the narrative means using the tools of stagecraft (e.g. scripted dialogue) and modern communications (social media platforms) to present a carefully constructed view of the person or organization that is intended to shape popular opinion. Instead of allowing Caitlyn Jenner to be regarded as a “sick and delusional” man, the carefully constructed story of her gender transition circulated through interviews and her television show, I am Cait, presents an account of someone coming into genuine knowledge of herself despite considerable personal and social obstacles.
Into this setting enters Marion True, former curator of antiquities for the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the wealthiest museum in the world. Ten years ago True stood accused by the Italian government of taking part in a criminal enterprise to acquire artwork from looted heritage sites in Italy. She quickly lost her job, her career, and left the country. True was placed on trial, along with the art dealer Robert Hecht, and, despite not being found guilty due to the trial ending without a judgment, she had already lost almost everything. She disappeared for 10 years. Now, through excerpts of a newly written memoir shared with the Washington Post, True argues that Italy sought to make American museums fear their unethical dealing in stolen antiquities. She even admits that she knowingly dealt in that trade, but with the proviso that she had made genuine efforts to repatriate artwork if she had knowledge of where it had been found.
True’s forthcoming memoir is an act of self-recovery and self-resuscitation against a story line with a noticeably gendered inflection. The alleged swindler Robert Hecht with whom she was placed on trial has already published his version of events that make him out to be a kind of dashing pirate, and he has been celebrated as such. More, True claims the men who she trained and studied under were just as unscrupulous as she: Cornelius Vermeule at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Dietrich von Bothmer. However, these men were never caught and prosecuted.
If this occurred today, and she were able to afford it, True would have lawyered up and hired a PR operative or team to begin the work of waging war to protect her reputation. One can imagine that the first thing a crisis management professional like Judy Smith would do is make it clear that Marion True was being victimized, not by the Italian government, but by dishonest men, who behind the cover provided by a corrupt museum profited from her work. More, True should be rightly greeted as a hero who has exposed the nasty underbelly of collection practices at world-class institutions and made international repatriation of stolen goods more achievable.
That True has clearly been scapegoated, makes this story compelling — it plays on the reader’s sentimental strings — but her rebranding is based on a somewhat cliché account that may not find traction due to plot fatigue. A smart, humble, working class woman works her way to the top of her field, cuts a few corners because she must fit into the culture around her, but means well and simply wants to succeed. She is brought low while carrying water for her managers, who then turn on her, hanging her out to dry.
When her entire story is published, what will likely drive most media attention and critical inquiry will be details of institutionalized theft by museums that otherwise seem beyond reproach. Such scandal will fuel a reassessment of the Getty and of True. Contemporary art audiences and readers of popular culture will welcome this because we still fundamentally believe in the power of the true story, honestly told, to effect monumental change: to make institutions fall and to make protagonists be remembered as courageous fighters who brought dishonorable regimes to an end.