May 2, 2012
Every so often, a visitor at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City questions the accuracy of an exhibit, but Helen Evans, one of the museum's curators, says not all of them are right.
Benjamin Lerman Coady, however, was.
Benjamin, 13, of West Hartford, is a seventh-grader at Renbrook School. Fascinated by history, he reads ahead in his textbooks. His mother sees his passion for the past and tries to provide an environment where Benjamin feels free to explore his interests.
That's how mother and son ended up at The Metropolitan Museum of Art last summer.
"It's more a parent seeing the world through a child's eyes," said Benjamin's mother, Joanne Lerman.
Benjamin wasn't quite sure what to expect at the art museum. He and his mother had visited the American Museum of Natural History a few times, but the Metropolitan was a new experience. Benjamin said he thought he'd see "just art on a wall."
He said he quickly learned that The Metropolitan is about more than just paintings — it's also about history.
While touring the museum, Benjamin and his mother stopped to look at the permanent exhibit about the Byzantine Empire — a part of history Benjamin had just studied in school.
A map of the empire in the 6th century was on display, and Benjamin said he immediately began to check the dates. The map was supposed to show when the empire was at its largest, but Spain and part of Africa were missing, he said.
Benjamin told a museum docent about his observation, who instructed him to fill out a form at the front desk.
"The front desk didn't believe me," he said, explaining that he never expected to hear back from the museum. "I'm only a kid."
In September, he received a letter from the museum's senior vice president for external affairs. It said that his comments were being forwarded to the museum's medieval art department for further review.
A few months later — in January, Evans, the museum's Mary and Michael Jaharis curator for Byzantine art, sent Benjamin an email: "You are, of course, correct about the boundaries of the Byzantine Empire under Justinian," she wrote.
She invited Benjamin back to the museum to meet with her.
Benjamin said he was surprised that the museum readily admitted making a mistake, and he said the process taught him a valuable lesson.
"If you have a question, always ask it," he said. "Always take chances."
As for the error, Evans said this week that the museum is still working to fix it.
The error was probably made when the map was reprinted a few years ago, and the museum is trying to decide whether it should now display more than one map reflecting the empire's history, she said. It takes a while to create a new map because it involves working with a mapmaker, Evans explained.
Benjamin met Evans at the museum in February, bringing her a gift — notepads from Renbrook School.
In return, Evans showed him around the museum, gave him a sneak preview of a new exhibit and discussed the Byzantine Empire. She also asked him to draw his own version of what the map at the museum should look like — a task he is still working on.
"It may be the makings of a young historian," Evans said.
History is definitely one of Benjamin's passions, but he said he doesn't envision a career as a history teacher or a museum worker.
"I want to move to Greenwich and open a modern exotic car shop," he said with a smile.