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Screen Shot 2017 04 18 at 11.48.19Metropolitan Museum circa 1914

One Monday last month, Thomas P. Campbell, the departing director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, stooped silently over a burial suit of jade tiles threaded with gold, circa 100 B.C. In this private moment, he had his back to reporters gathering for a first look at the Met’s landmark China survey “Age of Empires.” A moment later, Ken Weine, the new communications chief, tapped him on the shoulder, and Campbell pivoted, summoned up his British charm, and shook my hand. At 54, sandy hair parted in the middle, looking like he’d just exchanged safari khakis for a headmaster’s suit, he wore a trace of the uncomplicated pride he might have felt if journalists weren’t just then dissecting his eight-year tenure and the snowballing crisis of confidence that had ended it just four weeks earlier.

Campbell pulled out his iPhone to show me a photo of an excavation at one of 85 far-flung Chinese sites where the show’s loaned treasures originated. “This is in Jiangsu province,” he said in a librarian’s murmur, “a deep ravine down into the earth.” Terra-cotta animals were still caked with mud, like unwashed newborns. “This was the moment when I realized — with the curators — that this would be an amazing exhibition.” Years later, when the Chinese culture minister visited, “he said that because America doesn’t have a department of culture, in some respects they regarded the Met as that department.”

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