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The Museum Vaults: Excerpts from the Journal of an Expert, A Review -or - A Guy Walks Downstairs
Review by Scott Tingley, October 11, 2008

I've said this kind of thing before, but if you are looking for a comic to get the little kids in your life, this is not the review you are looking for.*

But, if you are looking for is a spiraling journey into the never-ending depths of the Louvre storage vaults - deep into the absurdity and beauty that is art and art history, well, this is the book for you.

I can tell you what happens in The Museum Vaults: Excerpts from the Journal of an Expert by French comic creator, Marc-Antoine Mathieu , but the real challenge is making it sound as interesting as I found it to be. Have you ever seen the movie, The Shawshank Redemption ? Many, myself included, found it to be an exciting movie that could be watched again and again. Now, have you ever tried describing that movie to someone that has not yet seen it? Summarize it to yourself right now…comes across pretty boring, doesn't it. Guy goes to prison and he stays there for a long time and while he is there he does taxes, digs a little hole and builds a library! Woo Hoo!

Here is the publisher's summary of THe Museum Vaults: An art assessor must evaluate the vast collections of the Louvre in an alternate Kafkaesque world where all is warehoused in an endless ever deepening succession of basement levels. (from nbmpub.com)

So, that is what the comic is about.

An art guy walks downstairs (try putting that on the dust jacket. I dare you! That would be the ultimate cover quote. I've decided to use that as the sub-title for this review.).


Seriously though, the running tally of days passed since the Expert began gave me the feeling of endless travel – of taking years just to get to the office so he could begin his job. This is not exactly the case, but it increased my uneasiness I felt while reading. We never see him stop to work, we only see him exploring and descending - ever descending. I kept reading, because like him, I wanted to see what was next.

I found the illustrations in Museum to be interesting and challenging. The pages do not feel busy, but they are cluttered in a way that portrays the nature of the museum vaults that we are exploring along with the Expert. Mathieu uses clean lines, which to me is important so as not to muddy our view of the works of art we are discovering.

The chapter breaks come every four pages or so and each chapter introduces us to a new level of the vault. I was going to say: “As we get deeper and deeper into the vaults the storerooms get more and more absurd." But this is not exactly true. One of the most compelling things about the way the story is told is how it allows/forces the reader to experience the book in her own way based on her own experiences. What was amazing section to me might not be the most absurd or most amazing level to you. There is an entire floor dedicated to the molds which are used to repair the sculptures found on different levels. There is a flooded floor (one of the upper floors) that has to be traveled by boat and where submerged art has to be catalogued even thought there appears to be no interest in moving the pieces to a drier location or removing the water. The Frame Depot was very interesting in that it develops into both an endorsement of comic/sequential storytelling as an art form and as an alternate history of comic storytelling. The Painting Storage vault was the one that I had the biggest reaction to because I am fortunately familiar with the painting, The Tribuna of the Uffizi , by Johan Zoffany (1772-8). I imagine there is a whole school based on this Russian Doll concept of painting, but I just know of this one painting and Mathieu's version was troubling and fascinating to me.

The Icon is an effective chapter that I won't even talk about – I don't want to ruin it. One of many “wow” moments.

The Museum Vaults: Excerpts from the Journal of an Expert is not going to be for everyone. I don't recall any swearing and there is no sex or violence, but this is not a book for kids. This is a book for an older teen or adult interested in museums and art and art history. It is for readers that want to discover new things and new worlds. Go and check out preview pages for it HERE, but I will say that those pages would not have sold me on the book. To repeat, the book is a journey, and it is most effective as a whole – the pieces are best viewed as being part of a whole.

Like I mentioned already, Museum is a journey of discovery. When I was traveling through the book I was surprised at how much deeper I wanted to go. For me the experience was like not being able to turn the channel when a documentary comes on about something you are not interested in at all, but then being unable to turn away because the whole thing has sucked you in.

The Museum Vaults is the second volume of an eventual four in co-publication with the Louvre museum. The series is intended to portray visions of the great museum by different comic storytellers. You can read more about it and its publisher HERE.

*I'm really sorry for the Star Wars reference in a serious comic about the Louvre.

(Did any of that make sense?)




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