Amy Silva in the Arms and Armour Hall
by John D. Hubbard
"Now we're going into another world," says Amy Silva '79, who has already led us through Pharaoh's Egypt, Oceania, Africa and medieval Europe.
"The Metropolitan Museum of Art is a living encyclopedia," says Silva, who has worked at the mammoth institution since graduation. An associate educator, Silva is used to guiding people around the globe and through time while bringing to life one of the world's great collections -- more than three million works spanning 5,000 years.
Beginning as an information assistant uptown at the Cloisters, a museum branch where medieval art is displayed in unique style, Silva found herself still a student. "I learned art history at the museum, it has served as my school and I've never stopped learning. The collection is always a challenge and every time I walk through I see something new."
From the Temple of Dendur, past painter Frederick Church's Heart of the Andes, out of the American Wing and into the Asian gallery the tour barely scratches the surface of the museum, with its 19 curatorial departments spanning four city blocks. The American Wing itself is larger than any other self-contained art museum in this country. On an average day 17,000 visit the museum and crowds swell to 35,000 at busy times. Despite the traffic there is a sense of tranquility. As Silva says, "Today, when information comes at us so quickly, it's nice to study one object -- to sit and see it."
To set the stage for such contemplation, Silva leads groups though the museum, visits neighborhoods, schedules lectures and plans seminars. Everything is geared toward learning and using the vast collections as a tool to gain understanding.
Yesterday it was kids from Queens talking about Egyptian art, tomorrow high school students from the South Bronx will visit the African galleries and before long Silva will examine images of mothers in art. In each instance she will use the collection as a way to discuss issues that concern everyone. "You can navigate through the museum talking about things that people share. To me, that's what makes art important."
Amy Silva remembers visiting the Egyptian tomb as a third grader and standing in front of tapestries at the Cloisters. She remembers too how far it all felt from East Harlem where she grew up. "It was a world apart even though I grew up only a mile north. There were two separate realities."
Through her upbringing, Silva felt, however, the entire city was hers and she had no sense of herself as a "minority student from the ghetto" until she arrived at Colgate 20 years ago. Still, Amy Silva made her own way. She didn't necessarily listen to the music she was supposed to or dress the way she was supposed to. She made her own friends and in the end made her own major, creating an interdisciplinary concentration drawing upon her love of and fascination with astronomy, anthropology, art and her experiences with Tony Aveni in MesoAmerica.
She also met her husband Pedro Luiz Baez, and the couple has three children -- Jacob, 16, Benjamin, 7, and baby Rebecca, who will turn a year old this fall. The museum plays an important role in family life. "I feel if my children are comfortable here, they can make it anywhere," says Silva, whose job revolves around creating that level of comfort for hundreds every year.
The education department has a staff of 60 (10 to 15 are educators) bolstered by some 400 volunteers. The scope of the department is as far reaching as the collections. Lectures, gallery talks, tours, film screenings, collection visits, off-site programs, workshops, symposia cover topics that span prehistory to modern times and Chinese landscapes to baseball cards. Amy Silva jokes she has been around so long she has become one of the building's columns but her verve is stirring, her love of learning contagious.
Today, Silva sees her job as an opportunity to make the museum accessible, to break down walls, to make the institution less intimidating.
"I help people see things for the first time and allow them to feel the museum is theirs. Our job as educators is to encourage people -- and there is every segment of society here -- to visit the museum. I take it a step further -- to teach them how to use the museum and have a sense of ownership."
The building and works of art are stunning but what makes magic, according to Silva, is the interaction with people. "That's my job -- to make sure the interaction happens."
And so she studies. "In order to talk about kuoros (sculpted Greek youths) you have to be buried in the books, in the library. It's the work you do at 3 a.m. The scholarship that goes along with this is so fascinating." No matter how carefully she prepares, Silva is open to the "primal experience" with a work of art and the ability of a person, particularly a child, to understand without any academic background.
"The experience a person has here in the museum with a work of art can really enrich the classroom experience," says Silva, who helps her "students" peer into windows where they can see the differences in various cultures -- and what they share. Ideas are explored across epochs and boundaries, from one gallery to another, from one period room to the next. East and west are easily compared as simply as seeing a Samuir mask with a European helmet in the hall of Arms and Armor.
The tour is winding down. "These are my babies," says Silva as we pass the thick limbed precolumbian figures on the way to her office where drawings by Jacob and Benjamin hang, a precious collection indeed.
Amy Silva is surrounded by history and beauty, the decorative arts and craftsmanship, by the culture of the world's cultures and she beckons, excited to make the Metropolitan Museum of Art part of everyone's reality.