Monkey Business at VMFA

 Allegory of Marital Fidelity, Jan Miense Molenaer. (1633)

As a reference librarian, I am often asked to find things for people. These little hunts are often straightforward and informative. But sometimes I get to uncover funny little bits of history and lore along the way.

Recently, I received a phone call from a woman in Philadelphia who works in an auction house. They were preparing for an upcoming auction, and needed my help in finding an old photograph of a piece in the auction. A desk they were selling was once exhibited here at the VMFA in a 1952 exhibit called “Furniture of the Old South: 1640-1820”. They needed proof that the desk had been exhibited here.
Luckily, for people like her, we keep lots and lots of records and information about VMFA’s past, including information on past exhibits. I found the file and found a photograph of the desk from the exhibition catalog and sent her a copy. She was very pleased.
During my search for the photo, I came across another photo related to the same exhibit. It was in an old newspaper article, showing a lady holding a stuffed animal. According to the article, she had been the first to respond to the museum director’s request for a toy cat. Why did the VMFA director, Leslie Cheek, solicit the public for a stuffed animal toy? Because he wanted a little kitty to be positioned by the fake fireplace set up in the gallery for the “Furniture of the Old South” exhibit. The exhibit was going to re-create an Early American interior, and it just wouldn’t have been complete without a cat by the fire!
The funny thing was, the article mentioned that unlike the monkey from a few weeks ago, this animal was invited into the museum.
Those who are as naturally curious as I am will know what I did next – I had to find out about the monkey! Some more searching in our old scrapbooks turned up another newspaper article from November 1951.  In it, a funny little story was told of a quiet afternoon at the VMFA, interrupted by a “well-dressed woman, obviously doing her best to maintain her composure”. She walked into the director’s office and said, “It is my impression that I have just seen a monkey run down the hall.”


Detail from Allegory of Marital Fidelilty
Indeed, she had. Mac, the pet monkey of the owner of a music store on Robinson Street, decided to go on a little adventure that day. Tom Minor, the owner of both monkey and store, was searching high and low all over the neighborhood for Mac the Monkey. Presumably in search of more than just musical culture, Mac walked (or climbed?) over to the VMFA. As someone was leaving the museum, little Mac slipped in the door and proceeded to make his way to the Dutch and Flemish paintings – clearly his developing taste in art was off to a good start. Next, he visited some 20th century paintings and a Zulu warrior from the African collection, but ended up in a staff workroom. (Perhaps he had lost his way while looking for Faberge?) The startled staff and patrons were afraid to touch the monkey, and Mac didn’t budge, so for a while there was an interspecies stand-off.
Consistent with his legendary stoic personality, Leslie Cheek barely glanced up from his desk to inform a staff member that “There seems to be a monkey downstairs.” As staff and security were alerted to the news that there was an unauthorized simian visitation underway, the newly-hired publicist was tasked with determining who might be missing a monkey. She called a pet shop, the same one Mr. Minor had called earlier. He thought perhaps Mac had more amorous activities planned for his afternoon outing, and was paying their lady monkeys a visit. Alas, no Mac was at the pet store at that time. But when the VMFA publicist called later, the pet store was prepared to help her. They called Mr. Minor right away. Soon he was plucking Mac off of the head of a sphinx in the Egyptian gallery, and all was well again.
Maggie McClellan
Reference Librarian, VMFA

 Caption: Allegory of Marital Fidelity, (1633 ) Jan Miense Molenaer (Dutch, 1609/10-1668). Oil on canvas. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond. Adolph D. and Wilkins C. Williams Collection. Photo: Katherine Wetzel