Hermes Knauer, Part I

by Michelle Millar Fisher, August 2012.

This month our Oral History Initiative features Hermes Knauer, armorer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In Part I, Knauer talks to Michelle Jubin about growing up in New York City, the comfort provided by the familiarity of a museum and the importance of Armistice Day in his own career. Audio + transcript below.

Artwrit: So it is Friday, June 8th. This is Michelle Jubin for Artwrit. We’re here at the Metropolitan Museum of Art with Hermes Knauer. Hermes, what is your job title? Before I get it wrong.
Hermes Knauer:
 Okay, my job title is Armorer/Conservator.

Okay, we’re here with Hermes Knauer, Armorer/Conservator. Hermes, would you introduce yourself for the listeners? It can be a biographical introduction… Maybe we’ll do the first two questions together: an introduction of yourself for the listeners, but also maybe your earliest memories of the Met. I want to know what you knew of the Met before you came to work here.
Okay. I grew up in the neighborhood; I grew up in Yorkville.

Oh, I didn’t know that!
Yorkville is around the corner here, on 86th street.

86th and what?
86th between Second and Third.

Oh, so you really were close!
I was really close. And what we would do is… Obviously, Central Park is a place where I would be taken to play, and I used to play in a playground that no longer exists, that is where the 84th Street transverse comes out of the park and is now where the Temple of Dendur is. And there used to be a little playground there. That little playground, the gates to the playground were beautiful. I believe they were Paul Manship, and they are now located on Fifth Avenue between 84th and 85th. If you get a chance you should look at them; they’re really wonderful.

I love the fact that you played where the Temple of Dendur is nowYour childhood playground was quite literally the Met as it stands today.
Right. And I played behind the museum, and obviously the museum has expanded and changed. But, my memories of playing behind the museum are very clear. I do remember actually crawling down an embankment, and there were no fences there. And there was a concrete roadway, and you were right behind the museum. You could touch the museum, and I literally crawled up the wall and looked in the window and there were people working in there.

Did you think at that time that you would be one of them, or was it just a place to play?
I was just curious what they were doing! And I could see that they were working on things in there, like sculptures. Little did I know that years later I would be working in that exact room and that that was objects conservation.

So as a child, did you go into the museum? Is it a place your parents took you?
Oh yes! My parents took me here, and I would say that this was in the 1950s, the first half of the 1950s. And I do remember that it was a very special occasion and that I had to get dressed up, and that I wore a suit and a tie. We went up the main stairs, which are different than the main stairs now. It was somewhat overwhelming, because one, there was this massive hall, and when you’re a small child everything seems gigantic. But I do remember in the main hall seeing sphinxes, which still exist and they’re in the Egyptian department. I do remember seeing knights on horseback.

So you saw the Arms and Armor department.
I did see that. And, Egyptian things I remembered. I remember Arms and Armor. I remember seeing bronze sculptures, which, looking over, this is material from Greek and Roman. I do also remember standing in awe of all of this, and I remember it was quiet. You couldn’t touch anything and you were supposed to be quiet. This was a very overwhelming feeling, that there are great things here. I remember my father telling me about the antiquities that were here and that this basically was history and these were real. This is what stories were written about, this is what the mythology was all about, and it was here.

And I continued to come to the museum because I went to public school and we would on occasion make trips to the museum through the junior museum. We would bring our lunch, and there are photographs that would show you school groups coming in with bag lunches, putting them in a big shopping cart, and we would go through the galleries. I do remember that I wanted to wander off and tell people where there were other wonderful things, but as in any group you can’t just go off and so we had to go where we were directed. But, it was a place where you could see fantastic and wonderful things. Two museums had a very strong influence on me as a child. One is the Met, and the other one is across the park: the American Museum of Natural History. Both of them, I have very fond memories of those. There is something very comforting about going into a museum and actually still seeing things that you remembered so many years ago and that they’re still there. There’s this feeling of continuity and…

And handing down a history, I think. Because this museum is so much part of a fabric of any kid’s childhood in New York City, because whatever school you go to, wherever you live, you usually end up at one point in your life coming to the Met with your bag lunch, or with your parents, or looking through the windows as you’re walking along Fifth avenue. It’s so nice to think of that connection between the Natural History Museum and the Met for you as well because, Bashford Dean, who is the founder of the Arms and Armor department where you work, he was both at the Natural History Museum and here. He was the curator of fish or fishes? [laughs]
Exactly! His doctoral thesis is on sharks.

Ha! I didn’t realize it was sharks.
He was one of those renaissance men who had this passion, and it’s, again, “Follow your bliss, your dream.” People in the American Museum of Natural History know him specifically because of his work with fish. But he, again, had a passion and we are very fortunate that one of the things that he loved in his life was arms and armor. When you look at fish and armored creatures with scales and overlapping plates…

Yeah, that’s so true! Again, that’s a really nice connection.
Like lobsters and crayfish…

Any crustacean that has the plates.
The tails, overlapping plates! He was instrumental, he was the right man at the right place. And what he was able to do, like a magnet, was draw to him others who had at least some sympathetic… Kindred spirits, let’s say that. Kindred spirits, and when they came to the Met… I didn’t know all of this as a child, but I did know that both of these places were special.

So how did you end up working at the Met? The reason I asked to do this interview in the first place is that you have such an amazing institutional history of the Met. You’ve been here for four decades.

Have you had your fortieth anniversary yet; is it coming up?
It will be. This is easy, you can remember the date. It’s the date World War I stopped.

Armistice Day 1918 is…
So the 11th month of the 11th hour of the 11th day, which I think is also very interesting, in connection with many things. But, how did I come to the Met?

Well, the Met has always been, to me, a shrine and a sanctuary. It’s a place where you left the outside world and came in, and for the amount of time you were here you could travel the entire world, but also through time. There are obviously our ancestors here. This is the connection I see. These are the links to our ancestors, and the beauty that was created, that might have been lost, has been found again, put on display, and you can come and stand before it. And even if it’s thousands of years old, you can still be influenced by it. You can look at its beauty, you can look at the techniques and technology that was used to create it. It’s inspirational. And part of what goes on through life, is that we’re constantly being inspired by things that have happened before. There are things we don’t know about, which we then discover and it’s new for us. Even though it may have existed, and others do know about it, but for you it’s a personal journey. And I think for every person that comes into the Met, whether it’s a child or someone beginning their lives, or someone who is at the end of their life.

I think that’s one of the wonderful things about this museum, too, you can continually come back in and see something new every single time. And it’s always a connection to what you’ve seen before. But in terms of how you began to work here, did you apply for a job?
I did, and this is what happened. When I got out of college I did not have a job and one of the things I did was I spent a lot of time walking my dogs and drawing and painting.

Did you go to college to be an armorer?
No, no. I should give you a little background here. I went to public school in New York City, I went to high school in New York City. The high school I went to was the high school of music and art, and I was an art student. And, again, another reason why I would go the Met, because we had assignments. We would be told, “Okay, you’re looking at Egyptian art,” or, “You’re looking at Greek and Roman,” or, “Go to the Cloisters.” I can go to the Cloisters today and immediately be transformed back to 1966, because I sit in a room and its exactly the same as when I was in high school, sitting there drawing and making notes. It’s still exactly the same. So that’s a real time-trip, and to find a place that hasn’t changed is a wonderful, comforting feeling.

But you can still go to and feel really inspired by.
Oh yeah! It’s like an old friend. Haven’t seen you in a long time, but I’m glad you’re still here.

So when you graduated from high school you went to college for art?
Yeah. I was actually going to be a teacher, but the thing is, who spoke at our college graduation was Tom Hoving.

No! That’s great! No way!
Tom Hoving had been a curator in Medieval.

Which year did you graduate, if you don’t mind me asking?
I’ll tell you! 1967. If it was 1867, I would tell you that too.

The listeners should know that what I’m looking at, Hermes, is extremely youthful.
In 1967, the announcement was made that Hoving was going to be the new young, dynamic director of the Met. Rorimer, James Rorimer, had been the director, and unfortunately had passed away in 1966. He had also been significantly influenced by medieval art and had a lot to do with the Cloisters.

Thomas Hoving was a medievalist too?
Correct, yes! When you hear someone who had been a curator in the Met, who had gotten involved with the Lindsay administration. John V. Lindsay had become mayor maybe in 1965, and he asked Hoving to be parks commissioner. So Hoving went and became parks commissioner. And look at this entire world of 1965 New York and you’re looking at things like, I remember they’d have be-in’s in Central Park, you could dress up any way you wanted. It was… Again, the 1960s…

But it was a connection; Calvert Vaux was the designer of the original Met right, and is also partner with Frederick Olmstead who is designing Central Park. So there’s always a connection between the outdoor space here and the indoor space of the museum. 
The Met is here in the park. And again, we talked about memories. The end of the Met was a big open parking lot. And all of that is now gallery space. So a lot more art has been put out. In the time that I’ve been here, its more than doubled, maybe even tripled.

In its footprint.
Yeah! Well, the footprint is the footprint, but the galleries allow more art to be put out. You have to look at the Met and think of it almost as an iceberg. What you see is a part of the art, and behind the scenes are all these people working.

One of whom is… You. But yeah, there are many, many, many…
If you think of it as a stage, there are all these people, and we talked about this in Japanese, the kuruko, who wear black, who are working behind the scenes. The art, that’s the jewel. And people will come to see the jewel. But there are so many people who are making it possible for this to happen.