The Mystery of the Missing Museum Curator
It’s a tail ripped from the headlines, tailor-made for a crime story podcast, maybe even a Netflix movie.
The young, passably handsome, first curator of modern art at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA) seemed to be happy in his job. He was quiet by nature, but people genuinely liked him.
Everything appeared to be going swimmingly until, one day, he was gone.
Just like that. Poof. He vanished into thin air never to be seen again.
His name was Barton Kestle. He was 36 years old when, on March 27, 1954, he boarded a train for Washington D.C. and disappeared.
The funny thing is, his office is still there, at MIA. You can see it for yourself, untouched, on the museum’s third floor.
His hat, coat, scarf, umbrella, still hang from the hall tree in the corner.
The book, Problems of Contemporary Art, a dirty ash tray, magnifying glass and old tobacco can full of pencils rest on his desk.
A cocktail cart, much more acceptable in the Fifties era, think Mad Men, with liquor bottles and drink glasses is pushed against the back wall.
Everything is just as he left it because, a few short years after Kestle vanished, museum workers, scrambling to install an exhibit for which they were woefully behind in completing before deadline, simply sealed and painted over the office door, creating what they thought at the time would be a temporary wall.
It wasn’t until decades later, in 2011, that it was rediscovered and the mystery of Kestle’s disappearance reborn.
Sure, there were rumors at the time.
A couple of weeks prior to his boarding that train, unidentified government agents had begun poking around, asking about Kestle. The museum’s chief administrators were among those questioned behind closed doors.
This was at the height of the Red Scare, McCarthyism, with anti-Communist fear running rampant. Throughout MIA there were rumors of a refusal to sign the Employee Loyalty Program document.
Soon after, Kestle received a summons from the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.
We know that’s why he was on that train to Washington D.C.
What we don’t know is what happened to him after he got on that train.
Or do we?
It’s an amazing story.
A sign posted on the wall outside Kestle’s office in the museum provides the details: his pension for working late into the night, his knowledge of the Soviet Avant Garde, Dada and Surrealism, his talents in photography and more.
However, the sign leaves out one exceedingly important piece of information.
It’s just a story.
The entire piece is a work of art. The office, the backstory about Kestle, even Kestle himself, are all a work of fiction.
The installation was created by New York artist Mark Dion from objects he salvaged from thrift stores and old storerooms. It was part of MIA’s 2013 exhibit, “More Real? Art in the Age of Truthiness,” and was intended to be disassembled following the exhibition’s closing.
Except the office was so well done, so believable and so well received by visitors, the MIA decided to make it a permanent exhibit.
So there it sits, Kestle’s desk still collecting dust after so many years, and visitors unaware it’s all fiction.
Minneapolis Institute of Arts
If you’re ever in the Minneapolis area please make the time to visit MIA. I definitely plan on going back again.
I spent three hours there and I was rushing through. I, seriously, may add a day to my next trip north to just have the extra time to spend at the museum.
Best of all, it’s free. There’s a fee for some, but not all, special exhibits. I didn’t attend any of those during my time there and was still overwhelmed at how much there was to see.
The museum covers three, very large, floors. On more than one occasion I felt I was working my way through a maze. It seems to go on forever.
Everything you would hope to find, from hundreds of years BC to modern day, can be found at MIA.
It would take me pages and hundreds of words to describe what you’ll see. Instead I’d encourage you to take a look at their website’s Explore the Art section.
But, be forewarned, you may find yourself journeying down a rabbit hole from which you can’t return.
Below are some photos from the exhibits just to give you a taste for what’s in store for you when you visit:
Just Imported: Global Trade in 1700s New England - MIA has many large, full-scale, installations depicting rooms throughout history, some with both audio and video. **
Kiss of Victory, 1878-81 - Sir Alfred Gilbert **
Kunin Collection - From one of the most important private collections of American Modernism from the first half of the 20th century. **
Tatra T87 Sedan, designed 1036, manufactured 1948 - Hans Ledwinka **
Portrait of Juan de Pareja, the Assistant to Velázquez, 1960 - Salvador Dalí **
Prajnaparamita, late 12th - early 13th century - Khmer, Bayon **
Baboon and Young, 1951, Pablo Picasso - Assemblage, found, art **
Processional Image of a Large Swan (Velya Annam), 19th Century - Kerala **
Vajra Warrior, mid-14th century - Guard of Japanese Buddhist temple **
Remembering Other, 2022 - Teo Nguyen - Stacked white paper tribute to more than one million Vietnamese who died during war. 58,220 represents US service members killed or missing in action in Vietnam **
Supha, 2008 - Maimouna Guerresi **
Agent Orange, 2022 - Teo Nguyen **
Helmet in Shape of Dragonfly, 17th century - Japan, Edo period **
**I allow use of my photos through Creative Commons License. I'm not looking to make money off this thing. I only ask you provide me with credit for the photo by noting my blog address, alansheaven.com, or a link back to this page.