“Owls at The Met” on Instagram is the brainchild of Robyn Fleming, an associate librarian in the Thomas J. Watson Library at The Met Fifth Avenue. Her wide-ranging bibliographic work has led her to a discover a seemingly infinite number of owl images in the Museum, which she regularly posts to her delightful Instagram gallery. We talked to Robyn about this intriguing endeavor.
So, what is it about owls, anyway? They’re so cute! I think it’s mostly their big round eyes—usually they’re looking right at you. They’re just so expressive even if they don’t mean to be. The more I post to this account the more I learn about and admire them—not just for their looks and hunting prowess, but also how they have very different meanings to humans across time and cultures. For some they symbolize wisdom, for others foolishness or drunkenness; for some they are powerful warriors, for others they are harbingers of death; and for many they are simply beautiful creatures worthy of drawing, etching, sculpting, or painting. (Full disclosure: they also remind me a lot of cats, and I’m a cat person, too.)
How many owls have you posted to Instagram? How did you go about finding them? I’ve posted a little over 200 so far. I find them primarily by searching The Met collection online (available to anyone), but I’ve also spent lots of time walking through the galleries looking for owls that haven’t been “cataloged.” There are also a couple internal databases that I have access to that have led me to additional owls. In some cases, “cataloged” owls are not in the galleries and there is no photography for them, so the collection managers will pull them from storage so I can snap a few photos with my phone—that’s definitely always a thrill.
Have Met staff members “brought” you owls to post? Yes, a few. Especially during exhibition installation time. And I get a lot of emails and texts from colleagues and friends when they see owls during their travels beyond The Met.
I’m sure it’s hard to pick just one but… what’s your favorite owl? Most beautiful? Most unexpected? Most whimsical? I really cannot pick one favorite, or even five favorites, but this one [at the top of this post] is high on the list, as well as anything by Inuit artist Kenojuak Ashevak, American artist Henry Emerson Tuttle [the 2020 calendar owl in December], and pretty much any owl that appears in our collection of Japanese illustrated books (e.g. this, this, or these). But there are just so many wonderful ones besides those—you will just have to keep following @owlsatthemet!
Was it hard to match owls to the months of the year for The Met Store’s 2020 Owls of The Met Plexi Desk Calendar? While I suggested owls to be included in the calendar, I did not have a say on which owls made the final cut nor which owl should go with a particular month.
They say many owls live in Central Park. Have you ever seen one there, or in the wild? Yes, I’ve seen three different kinds of owls in Central Park: a Great Horned, a Saw-Whet, and a Barred. In fact I saw the Saw-Whet and Barred owls in the Ramble on the very same day!
How long have you been at The Met? I started in July of 2001.
Tell us something about the Watson Library that will surprise us. The library was written into the Museum’s 1870 charter, so we have been around as long as The Met itself (almost 150 years!). We have well over 1 million volumes on the history of art and have been in the same central location (on the first floor of the Museum to the left of the Great Hall staircase) since 1910.
Shop for The Met Store’s new 2020 Owls of The Met Plexi Desk Calendar here.