Staff Picks: What Art Enthusiasts Can Read, Watch, and Listen To While at Home

April 9, 2020
From the perspective of above, a grid-lined notebook lies open on a table, with earbuds on top. An orange is a few inches above the notebook and to the right is a stack of three books. A few petals of a flower are on the right edge of the image.

Despite museums being closed worldwide, the conversations around art never stop, and there are many great art-related books, podcasts, and movies out there. We asked our team to recommend their favorites.

A black book cover shows the words “Geraldine Brooks” and “People of the Book” over an illustration of a blue and yellow insect wing.


People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

Chosen by: 
Abigail Cramer, Digital Asset Manager and Digital Archivist 

What it’s about:
 A rare books conservator performs the analysis and conservation of the famed Sarajevo Haggadah, one of the earliest Jewish volumes ever to be illuminated with images, rescued from Serb shelling during the Bosnian War. 

Why it’s recommended: As the conservator removes foreign fragments from within the book’s binding (insect wing, wine stain, salt, hair), the narration veers into the story of each fragment, thus telling the story of the Sarajevo Haggadah as the conservator pieces it together. The story is based on real events, and it brings to life both the history of the Sarajevo Haggadah itself and the more modern history of the Bosnian War. Both were fascinating and richly told.

A book cover shows “A NOVEL OF VINCENT VAN GOGH,” “Sunflowers,” and “SHERAMY BUNDRICK” written over a painting of large golden sunflowers.


Sunflowers (A Novel of Vincent van Gogh) by Sheramy Bundrick

Chosen by: Heather Linton, Curatorial Assistant for Special Exhibitions and Publications, Division of European and American Art

What it’s about: This novel fictionalizes a relationship between Vincent van Gogh and a young fille de maison (brothel worker) in Arles, each troubled in their own way.

Why it’s recommended: Though a completely imagined story, Bundrick’s novel offers a suspenseful escape into the world of Van Gogh in his last years. Included are references to the artist’s brother, Theo, fellow artist Gauguin, and yes, the severed ear. 

A grey book cover shows a drawing of a man's face. A green line descends on the cover’s right side; at top the text reads "Joyce Cary." Within a green block at right, below the man's face, is written “The Horse’s Mouth,” and below, “Thistle Classics.”


The Horse’s Mouth  by Joyce Cary 

Chosen by: Tony Sigel, Senior Conservator of Objects and Sculpture, Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies

What it’s about: 
This novel (and its adaptation as a movie starring Alec Guinness) is about the life of a difficult artist in the mid-20th century. 

Why it’s recommended:
 Brisk, touching, and hilarious. Both the book and the (technicolor!) movie are wonderful.

In this graphic shows a dark grey rounded open quotation mark overlaying a lighter grey, square closed quotation mark. Over the two marks is written "smarthistory."



Chosen by: Rachel Saunders, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Curator of Asian Art 

What it’s about:
 This award-winning site offers videos and essays on art history. 

Why it’s recommended: Open-access online videos and webpages with bite-size introductions to histories of art by leading authorities on a massive range of topics, representing many areas of the world. Produced by a superb team led by founders Beth Harris and Steven Zucker. 

A black cube shows a graphic of a door slightly ajar, with the word “sidedoor” written in yellow.



Chosen by:
Bridget Hinz, Curatorial Assistant for Special Exhibitions and Publications, Division of Modern and Contemporary Art

What it’s about: Stories about objects in the Smithsonian collections.

Why it’s recommended: Many of the podcasts I normally listen to are focused on news, so when I need something a little lighter, I’ve been turning to old episodes of Sidedoor. It is lighthearted (and sometimes pretty corny), but you learn about the stories behind objects in the Smithsonian collections. It has become more meaningful to me now that we don’t have access to the objects in our collections.

A book cover shows a red-carpeted staircase within a large museum rotunda or arcade; at the top of the staircase two children stand under an arch looking at a large painting. “FROM THE MIXED-UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER” and “e.l. konigsburg” are


From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg

Chosen by: Bill Kipp, Museum Attendant

What it’s about: Two young siblings run away from home and live at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

Why it’s recommended: It’s a great book to read to, or for, young art lovers. It has a little history and intrigue and is something light and fun for a change.

In this tilted graphic, a grey line descends from the top left to the bottom right, ending on the lower right side of the graphic in an arrow. Toward the top, "HOW" is written above a grey "I" and in between the bar and arrow are the words "BUILT THIS."


How I Built This with Guy Raz

Chosen by: Mary Booras, Weekend Supervisor, Visitor Services 

What it’s about:
 How I Built This is an interview-format podcast featuring entrepreneurs of successful, often groundbreaking or industry-disrupting companies (including artists and designers), sharing the story of how they started and grew their businesses. 

Why it’s recommended: 
I love hearing about the often very humble origins of highly visible brands and companies. It’s fascinating to hear what sparked the idea of a business or product directly from the founder(s). 

This book cover shows a large room. The floor and furniture are a honey-colored wood. A large white paper lantern and a long fish decoration hang from the ceiling. The words “Nature Form & Spirit THE LIFE AND LEGACY OF GEORGE NAKASHIMA.”


Nature, Form & Spirit: The Life and Legacy of George Nakashima by Mira Nakashima

Chosen by: Elie Glyn, Assistant Director for Exhibitions

What it’s about:
 Told by his daughter, the story at the heart of this beautifully illustrated volume is of Nakashima’s life, the furniture and architecture he designed, and the philosophical and spiritual underpinning of his work. 

Why it’s recommended:
 Nakashima synthesized venerable traditions of Japanese woodworking with early 20th-century American Modernism. His belief in “the soul of a tree” comes through in personal anecdotes, art historical snapshots, and page after page of furniture eye candy. One comes away from this book with the feeling that Nakashima himself possessed a beautiful soul.

A blue book cover has an abstract design of black lines and the words “WHAT is THIS?” in red.


What is This? by Tamara Shopsin

Chosen by: Zak Jensen, Design Manager

What it’s about: All the things a scribbled line might be.

Why it’s recommended: 1. It’s smart. This book playfully illustrates how differently something can look, depending on perspective and context. 2. It’s cute. It’s a hardcover for little hands! Works well in big hands, too.