The Piette trip was extra-ordinary. Literally. Not so much because of the Louvre or the Chenonceau castle themselves, though they too had a significant impact on our participants, of course. Yet for me, and I believe for all of us, whether we noticed it or not, what made this adventure so special was the people who welcomed, cared for, guided, and taught us. I was blown away by how eager each scientist, archaeologist, guide, host, historian, and administrator was to spend time with us and share with us passions, knowledge, lessons, and values, without prompting. I did not expect this much enthusiasm, from this many extraordinary people.
Each of these people provided a mine of information, but also craft, eagerness, and kindness. Each of them was an example of what happens not at the higher level of any art, when an expert enjoys success and can afford to be demanding, but what happens at the highest level: when an expert becomes interested in what is outside of his or her field of expertise, and when he or she becomes completely and genuinely humble.
Take our first host, Catherine Schwab, curator of the Paleolithic collections at the Musée d’Archéologie Nationale in St-Germain-en-Laye. She knows everything about the prehistoric era. She has published many articles, is invited everywhere to curate exhibits and attend conferences. She holds a key position in a national museum, where millions of artifacts are stored, preserved, loaned, studied, and exhibited. My interactions with her before the trip were, as I expected, formal and efficient.
Yet when we showed up at the museum on June 13, she took her formal hat off and spent the entire day with us, doing all of the guiding and commentary herself, conducting our private Piette room visit herself (all in very good English), taking us to the reserves herself, and staying with us the entire time as we observed the work performed in the conservation workshop. She could have skipped the chapel, but she made a point of taking us there between two other locations. By the end of the day (she did overtime for us, as did the workshop staff, without ever letting it show) she was all smiles and decided to take us onto the roof of the castle that hosts the museum, something that was clearly not part of the original plan. She let us frolic up there until we had taken dozens of pictures and had gazed leisurely in the distance to see Paris, the gardens, the hills, the rooftops. It almost seemed as though she had a hard time saying goodbye! Luckily for us, we realized that we would see her again a week later at the exhibit opening we would attend in Les Eyzies, 400 miles south.
When she saw us there, Catherine was clearly pleased. We could sense her stress as she had been frantically setting up the exhibit there all day and was about to let the first visitors in, a large group of experts in the field (and us!). She again spent time with us in the exhibit, and smiled for group pictures. I noticed how eager some of our students were to see her again. She had become a role model, mentor, figure, or simply very interesting person to them and they felt something special with her. The impression she made on them will stay for ever, and will, I’m sure, be with them somehow as they set off to decide what it is they want to do for a living.
Instead of a demanding, busy, unreachable figure, Catherine was genuinely interested in us, eager to share with us, and incredibly humble. That is what I call the highest level of an art, science, or profession. Thank you, Catherine.
Now, I don’t have enough space here to explain how each of the incredible people we met on the trip matched Catherine’s greatness. But I will indulge in thanking them, roughly in chronological order. I will probably forget some, not because they are forgettable, but because there were so MANY. I must admit I did not realize that as I was planning Piette.
Philippe, the master artist of the MAN workshop (with the most unusual professional path), showed us how to make a cast of an artifact, went on to show us his metallic creations (made of steel wires, hidden in a cabinet) to hold artifacts the perfect way for an exhibit, and was looking for more things to show. We learned how to take off layers of dirt and corrosion from glass, and how to cautiously sandblast pieces to bring their original splendor back to life. He explained to us how his job is to look at all kinds of fields, practices, and professions to find the right tools for artifact conservation. Dentist drill? Check. Philippe even stayed with us to go onto the roof — something even he did not get to do often!
Josh, guide extraordinaire (but that I knew beforehand, as the students will tell you!), clicked with us immediately and offered us the best tour of Paris and Versailles I could have imagined. Born in Massachusetts, he lives in Paris now. He shared his life story with us and had many, many anecdotes to tell as well as questions for the students. He explained history as a story, and brought it to life. He was genuinely interested in us. He knew his craft so, so well and the day was a breeze. He had gotten us a small VIP van instead of a tourist bus, so we could go to Montmartre and take the smallest streets. Ok, there is more, but… Thank you, Josh. I’m going to work hard on getting you as a Tour Director to be with us throughout the trip one of these years.
Christian, the kindest human being one can imagine, and hence the best bus driver ever, had quite the life story to share, too, and agreed to take us on roads he could have refused to take his 53-seater on. He was at the highest level of his art too, as students will tell you when they remember his parking and u-turn skills! And he was extremely humble about it.
Marie-Cécile Ruault-Marmande, of the Musée de Préhistoire in Les Eyzies prepared a unique visit for us. Not only did she invite us to the opening of their temporary exhibit, but she put us in touch with the best of their guides for a private museum tour and a visit of one of the most impressive caves in the area, Font de Gaume. Our guides themselves, at Font de Gaume and at the museums, were unusually kind, interested in us, and passionate about their art.
Our guide at Commarque was also named Philippe, if I remember well. We spent only an afternoon with him, but I will never forget how personal the visit was with him. He gave us a sense of the depth of the history of the place in an unobtrusive, casual way that made us experience it for ourselves, somehow. He knew all the details about the property, too. By the end of the visit I felt as though I had known him for years.
I had the same feeling about the owner of the gîtes where we stayed in Ariège, Frédéric Moncassin, former professional cyclist who is still very active on the scene. While we were admiring his professional victory jerseys, articles published about him and other realia framed on the walls of the houses, he was offering to do our laundry! He came to us every time he saw us and was the kindest, most flexible person imaginable. He let our Tour Director work in his living-room for wifi access and offered his driveway to our gigantic bus. We will be in touch and I can’t wait to go back next year.
Count Robert Bégouën, most famous prehistorian, who discovered some of the most important caves in the field, opened his mansion to us so that we could see his family’s private site museum. I felt as though I were in a Harry Potter book. He was so casual and open about our visit! He and his family always refused to open the caves on their property to the public or to make any profit from them. All they want to do is share the wonder.
Sébastien Lacombe and Kathleen Sterling may deserve the “Most Extraordinary” award, although comparison is almost impossible at this point. I don’t know where to begin. They welcomed 9 untrained teenagers to dig at their fragile and unique open-air archaeological site of Peyre Blanque. They had visited Andover in the spring to present their work and meet the Piette crew. They joined us for dinner at the gîte. They spent hours explaining to us why prehistory and archeology are so important for humanity, how digging should be done (CONTEXT!!), and why it should be limited (new techniques will surely emerge that will allow for better study of what is buried, so let’s dig out only 10% and leave the rest of our distant past untouched — how humble is that?). Believe it or not, they want to do MORE with us next year.
Margaret Conkey, whose name students noticed on the wall of the Mas d’Azil museum, astounded me with her incredibly personable and passionate teaching. Professor Emerita at Berkeley, having revolutionized the field several times with her new theories, former chair of the Society of American Archaeology, she spent hours with us at the digging site sifting through dirt and sharing anecdotes, asking about each student’s life and story. She spent a long time with a group of our girls at dinner and quickly became a mentor figure for several of them. To top it off, she spread the word about how happy she had been to work with us! A few days ago, she agreed to become a member of the Peabody Museum’s Advisory Committee (PAC), and we are elated! Thank you, Meg.
I could go on. Remember, Piette crew: it was all about the people. And we will stay in touch with them!