MUSEUMS can be captives of their own success. To draw new audiences in the TV age, most large art museums now rely on blockbuster exhibits - Andrew Wyeth's Helga paintings, the treasures from King Tutankhamen's tomb. Waiting lines are often long. Such promotion has worked. Museum attendance is up. Many first-time visitors return. The problem, however, is that the ``ordinary stuff'' which makes each museum distinctive - its permanent collection - can get overlooked.
Officials at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York decided they had to do better by the third of the museum's 3.3 million object permanent collection regularly on display. They opted to wrap the often overlooked in fresh packaging. In recent weeks the Met, with AT&T, has introduced a series of recorded tours by celebrities of its permanent collection.
In the first, which finished in mid-December, Met director Philippe de Montebello takes any visitor who slings a cassette carrier over his shoulder and drapes a listening device over one ear, in and out of a series of galleries past 30 of the museum's permanent masterpieces. Included are everything from a delicately chiseled statue of Queen Hatshepsut and the lavish 18th-century French furnishings of the Wrightsman Galleries to an ancient plum-tree panel painting by Kano Sansetsu, and the recently acquired Degas painting, ``The Dance Class.'' The two-hour walk, we can attest, leaves one refreshed and inspired.
Next year the Met will offer other tours, to be narrated by Steve Martin, Walter Cronkite, and Beverly Sills.
The technology and low cost of such acoustically-guided tours could restore attention to the permanent collections in other big city museums as well.