by Michelle Millar Fisher, September 2012.
In Part II of our conversation with Hermes Knauer, the master restorer discusses his forty-year history with the Met and the importance of remembering “to do no harm.” Audio + transcript below.
Artwrit: So Thomas Hoving came to speak at your high school graduation.
Hermes Knauer: Right. And talked about this great enthusiasm and his idea of bringing the public into the museum. The museum, at times, like when I was a small child, was very overpowering and monumental. It was like a monolith, I entered this monolith. Hoving was saying, “Come in, all of you come in. There’s something here for all of you.”
That really was the change, I think, in museum administration more generally, but certainly at the Met. I remember, in terms of education programs there was much more of an emphasis from there on out on having the public…
The community, having the community come in. And that it’s everyone’s art, and people should know it.
So you applied for a job?
I applied for a job. I would walk around the Natural History Museum inside and the Met, and I would look at the artwork and I was just… It made me feel so happy and so…Literally high, because it does appeal to the better angels of our nature. And one day I was just absolutely ecstatic about having been in the presence of this art, and I said to this one guard who was looking at me, and said, “What’s going on?”
And I said, “It’s so beautiful here! This is so wonderful!” Then he looked at me and he said… and I basically said to him, “You’re so fortunate to be surrounded by all this beauty.” And he looked at me and he said, “You looking for a job?” And I said, “Um…I don’t have a job.” And he said to me, “Well…let me give you a little advice. Shave, cut your hair, put on a white shirt with a tie and a suit, and go to the personnel department that’s here in the museum.” And I thanked him for that and I thought about it. Got a haircut, shaved, put on a white shirt and a tie and a suit. Walked into the Met, went to the main information desk and I said, “I’d like to go to the personnel department.” And they directed me to the personnel department and I went in and they said, “Would you like to fill out an application form for a position?” And I did. And they said, “ What position would you be looking for?” And I said, “Anything!”
And they said, “Well, we’ll call you.” And I thought, “I don’t know if they’ll ever call me.” They called me the next day. And they said, “We have two positions open. One is in the Cloisters, it’s three days a week, ” and I love the Cloisters. “And the other is in the Met, and it’s a staff position, which means you’ll work Tuesday through Saturday.”
Were you married at this point in time?
No, I did have a girlfriend. So I said, “Well, what is the job in the Met?” And the position was stockman. That was in the sales department. And the job was unloading trucks and putting books on shelves. And it was a lot of books, and a lot of boxes off of trucks. And I did that for a year and ten months. I was very glad to be in the building, but I was getting physically exhausted and I felt that my spiritual connection was not happening because I was working. All the beauty that I could see as a visitor, I had to focus in on my work. There was a job opening at the time in objects conservation and I did apply for that. There were thirty-some applicants, and when I was in college, I told you, I wanted to be a secondary education history teacher. Although I went back to working on art, I had thirty-some hours in German, which worked well for any art history and in German literature, so that was my minor. But I loved taking studio courses, and I really loved print making, doing etchings, I loved metal working. One has an affinity, and I really need to step back here and say my grandfather was a watchmaker and jeweler. I think there are certain affinities one has for materials, patience being one of the qualities that one needs. So you need patience, you need perseverance, and you need the ability to see it through. Because we’ve worked on projects that have lasted for years.
And you’ve kept going.
Yes! And you keep doing it. And part of it is when you look at history in this building, thousands of years. Our time here is short. It takes so long to learn the skill, the craft.
And to be incredibly patient.
Well, that helps if you’re incredibly patient, because you need to understand the object and you need, as doctors say, to do no harm. And that’s really imperative.
So you ended up in objects conservation?
I got the job in objects conservation as an assistant restorer.
So what were the objects that you worked on? I was interested in the daily, kind of day-to-day business of an armorer. What are you doing?
Okay, to get to the armorer thing…
Yes, lead up.
I was assistant restorer, which basically meant that I was an assistant to those who were actually doing the work. It is more of the apprentice system, which I’m a big proponent of, because that’s how someone who has a passion for something can learn from masters. And what you need to do, I would say this for everyone, if you have something that you really love, it’s a continual learning experience. You’re never finished. You will continually add to that experience. You’re weaving a tapestry, you just can’t see it now. You’re playing with threads, the colors you’re picking out will only be seen from a distance and for that you need the perspective of time. So I was an assistant restorer, working with…At the time there were a total of sixteen people in objects conservation. And I learned from each of the people working there.
So objects conservation was a department that serviced every single other department within the museum?
Correct. We worked for all of the departments that had objects. So when you look at the Met, there is paintings conservation, objects conservation, textile conservation, paper conservation, musical instruments works on its own pieces, arms and armor works on its own pieces.
So at this point in time you were working for any object within the museum?
Right, that needed gentle love and care.
How did you end up in arms and armor?
Okay, so… assistant restorer, years later restorer, years later senior restorer, years later master restorer. Master restorers were the guys who have the glasses on the end of their nose… These guys have incredible skills! This is again, what your affinity… What material comes easy to you. I worked with an old Italian fellow; he worked with wood. That was his element. It looked easy what he did. Why? Because that was what…
That was his… In his DNA.
That’s it! That was his passion. I worked with a Japanese fellow, and he could do wonderful things with ceramics and porcelain and stone and match colors. It’s magical.
This makes sense to me now. Now that you’re explaining it like this, that you’ve been here for 40 years because it really is something that you… In today’s culture people move from job to job so quickly and I think it makes sense that in your position one stays, because it’s a gradual learning process and you want to be around the materials that you’re working upon. It’s not something that you just sort of… leave from very quickly.
It’s an all-encompassing thing. I would tell people, “Yes, I’m married, but the Met is my mistress.”
I always… I mean, think how many years I’ve been coming here! You know, sea turtles seem to know what beach they were hatched on. They can go travel all around the world, and then they come back to that beach. And I think there’s something incredibly magnetic about the Met, it is really a shrine, and it has wonderful things to be discovered in it. And each person has to align themselves with something that is in tune with them. A tuning fork, if you hit it and it has a certain vibration, if there is another tuning fork that has that same wavelength it will begin to vibrate sympathetically. So what I’m saying is, there are things that we see and on a visceral level it just excites you. And you just look at this and go, “This is incredible, I don’t know this culture but there is something drawing me towards this.” And that’s the thing about discovery. One should come here with children to see what excites them. But I also have that feeling too that there are people at the end of their lives that still come here for comfort, and it’s like seeing an old friend.
Whether you stand in front of a painting or an object or a sculpture, there is something that is talking to you. So what I did was…I feel that all of this is training that one has had. So I got to be master restorer, I was in objects conservation nearly twenty-eight years, and a wonderful person, whose name was Bob Carroll, who was the armorer, unfortunately passed away. And I could say it was too early, but he had given his time and life here at the museum, and so there was a vacuum in that department. There were others who had left, and it’s a very small department, it’s a very special department. And so what you have to find is someone who can work and help in a very specific way. I had worked on arms and armor because my specialty was metal. I really liked metal! And whether it’s rusty iron or gold, and anything in between, I felt good about that material. And when people look at arms and armor they think, “Oh it’s all iron, it’s all steel.” Well, it isn’t! Yes, there is a lot of ferrous metal there, but look at it closely. There could be silver inlay, there could be gold inlay. There could be jewels attached to it, there could be ivory attached to it. And surely there’s textiles and leather, there are pieces of wood. So it isn’t just one material, and when you look closely at the surface you can see things have been etched and engraved, you can see that there’s chasing and repoussé work. So…what we’re looking at is not working on the piece and changing it but gently, gently cleaning it. Gently, gently conserving it. And that’s the difference in what we do today. People ask me, “Oh, do you use a lot of hammers?” Well we have hammers, but truthfully I use a microscope, and I use micro tools and I use a lot of cotton swabs. Why? Because gently, gently we’re trying to remove corrosion. And we don’t want to damage anything that is important to the piece or original to the piece. So that’s something that you learn over a period of time. It’s looking at a piece. It’s a combination of what’s in your mind, what’s in your heart and what’s in your hands.
And it really has the mantra for us to do no harm.
And do no harm!