This past April, writer E.L. Konigsburg died in Falls Church, Va., at age 83. She was a year older than her most famous literary creation, the wealthy eccentric Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, for whom her Newbery Medal-winning 1967 children’s book is named.
“From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler” was one of my very favorite books as a child, and it may have been yours, too. The book seems to have been required reading in American elementary schools for decades, so there’s a good chance you’ve read it yourself if you were a kid in the 1970s or ’80s. If you haven’t had the pleasure, the plot goes like this: 12-year-old Claudia Kincaid, tired of the petty humiliations of a suburban postwar childhood, decides to run away from her home in Greenwich, Conn., to somewhere “elegant … important, and busy.”
Claudia and her 9-year-old brother, Jamie – quiet, funny, and by childhood standards, “rich” – take the commuter train down to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, with their clothes packed into instrument cases and $24 between them. There they live for a week, sleeping in the beds in the period rooms, fishing pennies out of the fountain, and researching the story of a mysterious sculpture the museum had recently acquired. If you’re a dreamy, artistic pre-adolescent, running away to live in an art museum is about the best scenario you can imagine for yourself, which is why this book has resonated with its youthful audiences for so many decades.
When Konigsburg passed away two months ago, I wanted to write a tribute to her book, so instrumental in shaping the way I thought about art museums (that is, as spaces with mysteries and wonders to be investigated carefully, not specifically places where I could sleep). Here is a guide to the art museums of the Twin Cities, and which, according to my own mixed-up files, would be best-suited for a young Claudia and Jamie to run away to today, on a scale of one Claudia (not well-suited) to four Claudias (perfectly suited).
Weisman Art Museum
Most critically, the Weisman is, like the Met in the 1960s, free. This would allow Claudia and Jamie to enter relatively easily, especially on a busy day with a lot of foot traffic. In the book, Claudia and Jamie initially enter the Met with a group of schoolchildren. This might be harder to do in the summer, but during the school year, the Weisman gets a fair number of elementary-aged visitors, and the runaways could easily blend into a bigger group. The trick with the Weisman is, like most museums, you have to check your bags at the front, usually with the assistance of the student workers at the front desk. It would be tough for Claudia and Jamie to leave their clothes checked, and still be able to access them after visiting hours – almost certainly some conscientious student employee would have turned them into lost-and-found.
Depending on Claudia’s temperament, she’d probably find the interior of the museum very agreeable. The skylights are the museum’s best feature, and it’s a light, airy place to wander and learn (one of Claudia’s key prerogatives). The “Reviewing the Real” show that just opened would give Claudia some things to think about, in particular the Duane Hanson piece. Hanson’s ultrarealistic sculptures work always felt to me a little bit like getting one over on the audience, in the same way Claudia might feel her meticulously planned ruse was getting one over on the museum.
The biggest problem with the Weisman is, of course, the space issue. Even after its recent expansion, with 11,000 square feet of exhibition space, the Weisman probably isn’t big enough to shelter two children intent on living inside among the artwork. Not having period rooms, it’s hard to figure out where Claudia and Jamie might sleep. The benches? The administrative offices? Not a chance. The same airy lightness that makes it such an attractive space to wander in the day would become a liability by night – there are few nooks and corners and for the runaways to evade detection from U of M security personnel.
The Museum of Russian Art
TMORA is certainly a very beautiful space, and possibly more Claudia’s speed than the Weisman. Housed in an old church, redesigned by Julie Snow, the architecture would probably appeal to Claudia’s nascent sense of the spiritual in art. Like the Weisman, it’s an open space, but there are more hidden corners and recesses to explore. There is a library onsite, which Claudia would enjoy using, and there is even a samovar in there that serves tea for a small donation. This would keep the runaways hydrated. Children under the age of 13 are admitted for free, which eases up the problem of having to pay admission.
Again, however, we find the lack of period rooms would make it difficult for Claudia and Jamie to sleep in the elegance in which they had hoped. There are no beds or furniture on display, leaving only benches and closets. As great as it is for a visit, it would make a somewhat unsuitable place for two children to take up semi-permanent residence.
Walker Art Center
Now it’s down to the two bigger museums. With 130,000 square feet, the Walker presents much, much more space in which Claudia and Jamie can make themselves comfortable. Admission is free for all youth under 18, so getting in would be no problem financially (though in 1967, Jamie’s $24 had the equivalent modern spending power of around $168, which is a much larger sum of money than I remember thinking it was when I first read the book in 1989 or 1990). And there are school groups visiting constantly, so sneaking in with one of them would probably be significantly easier, as well.
Otherwise, needing to get the “WALKER” lapel tabs from the front desk day after day might arouse suspicion from the staff. But there are free lockers downstairs near the bedroom, which would make stowing their instrument cases filled with changes of clothes very simple. Additonally, the Walker certainly fits Claudia’s criteria of her destination being elegant, important and busy.
It’s also very easy to reach by mass transit. Growing up in Greenwich, Conn. is probably roughly equivalent to growing up in Wayzata locally. Since there’s no commuter train for Claudia and Jamie to take into the cities, they’ll have to settle for the 675 express. But that would put them downtown, and they could either catch the 4 down Lyndale, or walk across Loring Park.
Logistically, there is the problem of the museum not having period rooms – historic beds are a key part of Claudia’s plans, and the Walker’s lack of anything like that is a mark against it. However, I am amused by the thought of Claudia interacting with one of the shows currently up in the galleries, Mexican artist Abraham Cruzvillegas’s “The Autoconstrucción Suites.“ It is, I suppose, a particular sort of period room. Drawing on the vernacular architecture of the urban landscapes of his childhood home in Mexico City, Cruzvillegas has created a roomful of sculptural objects that resemble towering, hand-built shanty residences, assembled with scraps and found materials. It’s not hard to imagine two kids using some of the pieces as hideouts, even if it’s not exactly what Claudia (or Cruzvillegas) might have imagined.
Cruzvillegas’ exhibition even comes with its own research and study library, complete with publications, maps and other documents relating to the show. In the book, Claudia and Jamie must travel to the old Donnell Branch Library on 53rd Street to do research about the artwork they’ve chosen to investigate, a sculpture of an angel purchased from Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, and possibly created by Michelangelo. Here, they don’t even need to travel out of the museum to do similar research. And of course, the Crizvillegas show is only one of several, not including the permanent exhibitions. With several floors, numerous galleries, a restaurant, and a theater, there’s plenty for Claudia and Jamie to see, and plenty of places to evade detection.
Minneapolis Institute of Art
At 473,000 square feet, the MIA is the largest museum in the city, and very likely the sort of place Claudia Kincaid had in mind when she decided to run away from Greenwich, Conn. – “a large place, a comfortable place, an indoor place, and preferably a beautiful place.” Locally, the MIA is the most like the Met, in terms of the relative age of the institution and the breadth of the collection. Of course, the Met’s 2 million square feet makes it four times as large the MIA, but in terms of space to explore, rooms to cover, and passages and hallways to wander, it’s probably the best in town for our heroes.
This is partially, of course, because there are the sorts of period rooms of which our protagonists are so enamored. Claudia and Jamie – if they could evade the security devices – could choose between the colonial era Connecticut Room, the 18th century Charleston Drawing Room, the 1800-era MacFarlane Memorial Room, the living room of prominent Duluth citizens William and Mina Merrill Prindle circa 1904, or the Frank Lloyd Wright Hallway, which is of course just a hallway and not a bedroom, but which has some comfortable benches. None of these are bedrooms, in fact, but they are all very inviting.
Spending time as a child at the Cincinnati Museum of Art, the closest major encyclopedic art museum to my hometown, I thought of Claudia and Jamie, and what it might be like to live in a museum. That sort of fantasy created a sense of shared ownership of the space –“stewardship” may be a better word – as if the museum and all the art in it was something I could not only admire from behind glass, but something I could live with in my day-to-day life. Wandering through the MIA, I find I still have held on to that vestiges of that feeling, decades later.