“William?” scowled the security guard.
“Yes,” I replied, with a bright and cheerful enthusiasm which, in hindsight, may have been a bit of a mistake. “Can you tell me where to find William?”
He viewed me suspiciously, as if trying to weigh up, from my eagerness, whether I was an idiot or a troublemaker. I had naïvely assumed that everybody in the museum would know William and his whereabouts. As the security guard looked me over warily, it belatedly dawned on me that, however obvious it might be to me who William was, this crucial piece of intelligence might just have escaped the security guard.
“The hippo,” I explained, in what I had hoped would be a helpful way, but which I soon realised only made matters worse. In response, the security guard’s expression abruptly shifted gear again, from suspicion to low-level alarm, and I started to wonder as to the advisability of going on with our conversation. However good my intentions, it looked like continuing the discussion might only have the effect of antagonising him further.
“Hippo?” he repeated, testing the word sceptically, much as one might sip cautiously at a drink offered by a stranger of whose bona fides one has reason to doubt.
“Yes! William’s a statue of a hippo,” I elaborated. He blinked at me, the dim and distant light of vague recognition slowly coming to his worried eye.
“What era?” he asked, suddenly.
“Uh,” I thought. “Egyptian?”
He thought for a bit. Finally, he nodded and pointed back to The Great Hall and to anther entrance at the far side.
“North Wing,” he said. “Try there.”
Relieved to be able to stop being such an obvious source of annoyance and frustration for him, I thanked him and made my way through the thronging visitors in The Great Hall. Showing my ticket again, I passed further security guards, who were busily engaged in frowning at people with backpacks, and into the gallery of Egyptian art.
In a museum as grand and expansive as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, narrowing one’s field of enquiry to a single wing, particularly if one is looking for a small ceramic hippopotamus, is not quite as helpful as you might imagine. It does help to be in the right section of the building, of course, but as I wandered past mummies, statues of Anubis and, to some surprise, The Temple of Dendur (complete with Napoleonic graffiti), I started to lose heart in the enterprise. It was only a small hippo, after all, but I had wanted to see it.
Finally, as I started to make my way back towards the entrance, having all but given up hope, I saw him. He was standing in an unostentatious glass cabinet, at one side of an otherwise unremarkable room, for all the world just minding his own business and watching the visitors go by.
William (or “Figure of a Hippopotamus” as he is referred to, with commendable understatement, in the Met catalogue) is barely more than 11 cm tall and is glazed in a vivid aquamarine and patterned with lotus flowers. He is from Egypt and is nearly four thousand years old. For most of the last hundred years, having been gifted by Edward S. Harkness in 1917, he has been at the Met in New York.
For an object of such antiquity, William has an endearingly sprightly charm. He stands, looking out of his glass case with a curiously benign expression of bemused indulgence, as if he had spent the last century casually watching the comings and goings of visitors to his new home. Maybe it is his broad snout that appeals, or possibly his pleasingly stumpy feet, which make him look like a puppy standing to attention, but whatever it is, he appears to be a hippo that is pleased to meet you.
As the unofficial mascot of the Met, I had assumed that William would have a display case all to himself, and be the centre of attention, but I was the only one at that moment who was looking at him.
“Hello, William,” I said.