Articles

A Child’s Guide to Squatting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

E.L. Konigsburg, ‘From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler’ (1967) (cover image via Simon & Schuster)

In E.L. Konigsburg’s 1967 children’s classic From The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, siblings Claudia and James Kincaid run away from their cushy suburban home in Greenwich, Connecticut, and camp out at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Their adventure in luxury squatting lasts for three days, during which they do all the illegal things that most museum visitors only fantasize about, like lounging in Marie Antoinette’s lounge chair, bathing in the Fountain of the Muses, and using Roman sarcophagi as personal storage units.

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler was inspired, in part, by a picnic in Yellowstone National Park, where Konigsburg’s three kids started whining about too-warm chocolate milk. “If they ever wanted to run away, certainly, they would never consider a place less civilized than their suburban home,” Konigsburg wrote. “Probably, they wouldn’t consider a place even a smidgen less elegant than The Metropolitan Museum of Art.” That notion sparked research trips to the Met, during which Konigsburg, a former science teacher who took classes at the Art Students League, sketched her three children posing among the mummy tombs and Grecian urns. The sketches turned into beautiful black-and-white illustrations for the book.

IMG_5514
The Metropolitan Museum of Art (all images by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

Squatter’s rights definitely do not apply in the hallowed halls of the Metropolitan, and anyone who was caught trying camp out in the galleries after hours would be arrested for trespassing. But fantasizing is allowed, so I retraced Claudia and James’s journey through the museum as described in From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. Here, a guide to squatting in one of the world’s most famous art institutions, E.L. Konigsburg-style.

IMG_5534
A women’s restroom at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Step One: Hide from museum guards at closing time by perching on a toilet in a bathroom stall.

[Claudia] decided that she would go to the ladies’ room, and Jamie would go to the men’s room just before the museum closed. … Claudia explained to Jamie that he was to enter a booth in the men’s room, ‘and then stand on [the toilet]. And keep your head down. And keep the door to the booth very slightly open…. I’m certain that when they check the ladies’ room and the men’s room, they peek under the door and check only to see if there are feet. We must stay there until we’re sure all the people and guards have gone home.’ —E.L. Konigsburg, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler

IMG_5509 (1)
Marble Sarcophagus with Scenes from the Lives of Saint Peter and Christ, early 4th century (with modern restoration), Roman, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Step Two: Scatter your belongings: Good hiding places include the many urns and terracotta kraters in the Greek Wing, or this marble sarcophagus, carved in Rome in the early 300s, when Christianity was first recognized as a legal faith within the Roman Empire. Its ornate carvings picture biblical scenes: “The Miracle of Saint Peter Drawing Water from a Rock in His Jail Cell” and “Saint Peter’s Arrest in Rome.”

Claudia hid her violin case in a sarcophagus that had no lid. It was well above eye level, and Jamie helped hoist her up so that she could reach it. It was a beautifully carved Roman marble sarcophagus. She hid her book bag behind a tapestry screen in the rooms of French furniture…. The trumpet case was hidden inside a huge urn and Jamie’s book bag was neatly tucked behind a drape that was behind a statue from the Middle Ages. —E.L. Konigsburg, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler 

IMG_5547
Grecian Urn, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Step Three: After traipsing around the galleries after hours, rest your bones in this “State Bed,” draped with blue silk damask. Dating from 1690, it was chosen by Lord Coningsby, a friend and courtier of King William, for the formal quarters of his medieval stone mansion, Hampton Court, in Herefordshire. It remained there until 1925. (The particular Tudor bed where Claudia and Jamie slept — and where Amy Robsart, wife of Queen Elizabeth I’s “favorite” friend, Lord Robert Dudley, was allegedly murdered in 1560 — has been dismantled, to the disappointment of many.) 

IMG_5495
State Bed (ca. 1698), Metropolitan Museum of Art

At last she found a bed that she considered perfectly wonderful, and she told Jamie that they would spend the night there. The bed had a tall canopy, supported by an ornately carved headboard at one and and by two gigantic posts at the other. (I’m familiar with that bed, Saxonberg. It is as enormous and fussy as mine.) —E.L. Konigsburg, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler

IMG_5550
E.L. Konigsburg, illustration of “State Bed” from ‘From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler’ (1967)

Step Four: Kill two birds with one stone by both bathing and collecting coins in the museum’s fountains. Konigsburg’s protagonists bathed among water sprites in the Fountain of the Muses, which has been moved to South Carolina, but the fountain with two cherubs in the Charles Engelhard Court in the American Wing will do just fine.

IMG_5484
Fountain in Charles Engelhard Court, American Wing, Metropolitan Museum of Art

They shed their clothes and waded into the fountain. Claudia had taken powdered soap from the restroom…. When [Jamie] got into the pool, he found bumps on the bottom; smooth bumps. ‘Income, Claudia, Income!’ he whispered. Claudia understood immediately and began to scoop up bumps on the bottom of the fountain. The bump were pennies and nickels people had pitched into the fountain to make a wish. At least four people had thrown in dimes and one had tossed in a quarter. Together they collected $2.87. —E.L. Konigsburg, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler 

IMG_5552
E.L. Konigsburg, illustration from “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler” (1967)

Step Five: Lounge in Marie Antoinette’s lounge chair and eat petit fours at her writing desk. Or,  to honor the original inspiration for the book, eat popcorn: A kernel of an idea for the book came in the form of a rogue piece of popcorn spotted at the Met. “My three children and I were visiting the Museum, wandering through the period rooms on the first floor when I spotted a single piece of popcorn on the seat of a blue silk chair,” Konigsburg wrote. “There was a velvet rope across the doorway of the room. How had that lonely piece of popcorn arrived on the seat of that blue silk chair? Had someone sneaked in one night — it could not have happened during the day — slipped behind the barrier, sat in that chair, and snacked on popcorn?”

IMG_5528
Mechanical table (Table mécanique) used by Marie Antoinette (1778) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Step 6: Look smug. You’re an Upper East Sider now.

Jamie looked over at Claudia …. Claudia looked as satisfied as the bronze statue of the Egyptian cat she was standing near. The only real difference between them was that the cat wore tiny golden earrings and looked a trifle less smug. — E.L. Konigsburg, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler

IMG_5551
E.L. Konigsburg, illustration from “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler” (1967)
IMG_5479
Cat Statuette intended to contain a mummified cat (Ptolemaic Period) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

From The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweilerpublished by Simon & Schuster, is available from Amazon and other online booksellers. 

comments (0)