How the Met Museum plans to get its groove back

March 16, 2012, 3:57 PM UTC

FORTUNE – You could probably earn a Ph.D. working with just one piece out of the hundreds of thousands on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art any given day.

But it’s bad business if visitors need an art history degree to have a good time at the museum. No one knows this better than Thomas Campbell, who moved up from his position as a textile curator to direct the museum in September 2008, about a week before the economy took a plunge.

Right after he took the job, the Met froze hiring, laid off roughly 15% of its staff, and its total endowment funds dropped by about a quarter of its value. To maintain the Met’s cultural relevance, Campbell believes he’s going to have to broaden its appeal.

Luckily, he says, he’s got some very appealing material to work with. “I think great works of art, or even very just very humble objects, connect you through time and space with people who might have been living in very different times but often with very similar hopes and dreams.” The plan is to help people, anyone really, draw those connections to the here and now. Some of the Met’s numbers are looking up. Last year, it pulled a record attendance of over 5.6 million people.

Campbell talks to Fortune about how he was first wowed by the world of tapestries, how catering to curators can be like herding cats, and why parts of the great museum were a bit like the Tower of Babel. An edited transcript is below.

Fortune: What drew you to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the first place?

Thomas Campbell: Broadly, philosophically, I was a tapestry scholar, and I came to the Met because I saw it as a place where I could organize big exhibitions that would have real scholarly clout but at the same time where I would have a broad general audience.

I truly believe that the Met was set up as an educational institution, and not just as an American museum but a museum of all cultures. In the current world, that vision is as relevant as ever. Whether it’s trouble in Cairo or in Syria, these are present day manifestations in some cases of issues that go back centuries, and you know, in our galleries you can kind of unpack some of this and get a broader understanding of the complexity of the present and of the past and the way it’s all linked.

How do you make ancient pieces of art relevant to a modern audience?

I think we can do more. For example, last October, we reopened the new galleries of our Islamic art department. It’s about 10 years after 9/11. I think before 9/11 most Americans probably had relatively little understanding of Islam. And then, in that terrible moment, the perception was inevitably filtered through a very polarized light. What we’ve done in reopening these galleries is present 14 centuries of the evolution of many Islamic arts. And what’s amazing to me, but not surprising, is that since we opened those galleries, we’ve had 370,000 visitors in four months. The galleries are drawing crowds as if they were one of our most popular temporary exhibitions.

How do you sustain that kind of interest?

While we’re addressing people who know a huge amount, the Met mustn’t be perceived as an elitist intuition. I’ve put quite a lot of energy into thinking about how we can make it feel more accessible.

Take advertising: for some reason there had been a tradition that we never showed people with works of art. I’m not quite sure where that came from. One of the first things I did when I became director was start an advertising campaign called “It’s time we Met.” One ad in the series showed a couple kissing in front of Rodin’s sculpture “The Kiss.”

Similarly, we’re about to redesign the plaza outside. Most of it looks like a bit like a prison yard, it’s austere, it’s forbidding. We want to have an attractive place where people feel good about arriving at the Metropolitan.

We’re thinking much more creatively about what it is like to be a first time visitor. Amazingly, when I came, the galleries had never even been numbered.

Has it been difficult to get people on board with your vision for the museum?

Well, a week after the announcement of my appointment, Lehman Brothers went down. As I waited in the wings, I saw the whole stock market collapsing. The silver lining, in so far as there was one, is that it might have taken me quite a while as a young new director to get people on board. But the external finances forced all of our staff to think hard about our core priorities, so I could come in and really get my agenda going.

Do you remember when you first fell in love with tapestries, your area of expertise?

I was lucky, as a young art historian, I was studying art as it was then defined, which is painting and sculpture and architecture, and I realized the patrons of the past were spending huge amounts of money on tapestries, so I began looking at tapestries while traveling.

There’s one great set of tapestries called “The Hunts of Maximillion” at The Louvre in Paris. They showed incredibly realistic scenes in Brussels from around the 1520s. It’s a world you could walk into; it has the vividness of an IMAX movie. I remember seeing these probably 20 years ago and just thinking ‘My God, this is such a direct representation of the past in all of its complexity and beauty and violence.’

That was my passion, and now I have curators coming into my office on a daily basis, and they’re an interesting cast of characters. Some of them can be quite ornery, sometimes it’s a herding cats situation. But they each have their passion. And my job is sustaining and supporting their vision.

Is there a particular place in the museum where you have time to think?

The elevator to my office takes me down to the balcony above the great hall. I love just going down to the balcony and watching our visitors coming into the museum. And then sometimes, just at random, walking north, south, east, west, letting my feet take me wherever. I’ve been here 16 years, you know, this is a place where you always discover something new.