by Carter B. Horsley
Whatever one's quibbles, the Metropolitan Museum
of Art is New York City's greatest asset - a cultural treasure-house
of unparalleled splendor.
Any institution so vast, of course, generates
lots of quibbles.
It's too crowded.
It's too commercial.
It tries to be too much to too many.
Its growth in recent decades has been phenomenal
in terms of size and impressive in terms of quality accessions.
The physical expansion of the master plan, initiated
in the museum's centennial year in 1970, for new construction
of Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo Associates has been completed and
further encroachments into Central Park are unlikely. In 1995,
Philippe de Montebello, its suave director, unveiled its long-term
plans for reorganizing and rearranging its interiors, a project
that will take the better part of a decade to complete. The interior
restructuring, while much less spectacular than the minimalist
glass additions of the Lehman, Temple of Dendur and Michael C.
Rockefeller African, Oceania and Americas Art wings, will radically
revamp the southeast section of the museum to create major new
spaces for the museum's Greek and Roman collections and will result
in the removal of its large public restaurant facility to another
location. In mid-April, 1999, the second phase of the new Greek
galleries opened with three large skylights in the great vaulted
corridor in the South Wing. This reinstallation led to the cleaning
and restoration of many works, which was important, but the galleries
themselves are not as elegant as they were before, cluttered with
uninspired vitrines and with too many less than masterful works.
The corridor skylights offer dramatic, shifting light on many
days which is effective for viewing many of the sculptures, but
the grandeur of the space has been somewhat compromised.
When it launched its lavish and extensive reinstallation
of its Egyptian galleries sometime ago, the museum wisely decided
to exhibit much more of its collections and added "study"
rooms for many works that were of lesser quality and condition,
a boon to students. Given the magnitude, and splendor, of its
collections, on the other hand, the wholesale display of too many
works can not only be overwhelming but distract from an intense
concentration on masterworks, many of which are hard to discover.
Obviously, the "discovery" of the masterpieces is one
of the joys of going to museum, but the haphazard placement of
many of them can be taunting and frustrating for many hapless,
time-pressured visitors. Acoustiguides, of course, are intended
to help guide visitors to them, but are usually reserved for the
special, temporary exhibitions. The Greek installation, unfortunately,
does not have the adjoining "study rooms" found in the
Egyptian galleries. In the early years of the century, the Great
Hall was filled with copies of many famous statues. One goes to
museums to see originals so their removal was correct, but such
great spaces, and the Met has quite a few, cry out for sculptures
as is well done in the Medieval Hall and the great Tribal and
Under de Montebello's reign, nicely profiled
by Calvin Tompkins in The New Yorker magazine in November,
1997, the Met has become a less controversial, but still imperfect
place. Gone are former director Thomas P. F. Hoving's bluster,
blunders and braggadocio, although his legacy of crass popularization
and success-measuring by ticket-numbers remains, and a plan to
get rid of the great staircase, shown at the left, was abandoned.
With the greasy food peddlers, gum-stained, people-blocked steps,
and omnipresent sales desks, a visitor might well think he was
attending a gladiator's rout at some coliseum.
But the Friday and Saturday night musicales
are delightful, the Carroll and Milton Petrie European Sculpture
Court, shown below, is divine, and the recent Annenberg gift of
Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings dazzling. Despite
the ubiquitous recorded tours and the frustrating and outrageous
schedule of closing numerous galleries on different days because
of inadequate funding for security, the Met is an overwhelming
How many days should a tourist devote to the
Met at a minimum?
Two? Three? Seven?
The Met's collections are certainly world-class
in many categories. Its Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings,
its African, Pre-Columbian and Egyptian Art collections and its
19th Century American Paintings collections are stunning. Its
Medieval Art, especially if one includes a visit to the wonderful
Cloisters, and European Decorative Arts collections, are also
wonderful and the André Mertens Galleries for Musical Instruments
is very rich.
In May, 1997, the museum reopened its Chinese
Paintings galleries with great fanfare on the second floor of
the north wing adjacent to the Florence and Henry Irving Galleries
of Southeast Asian Art. Both installations are lavish, very
impressive and very significant in broadening the museum's multiculturalism.
The renovated Chinese Paintings galleries are
stunning even if they are controversial. See The City Review's
articles on the 1997 Tang gift of paintings
from the C. C. Wang collection and the controversy
over the original acquisition of 25 paintings from C. C. Wang
in 1973, two-thirds of which are now on view again, a
lengthy article that was not published on them by The New York
Times and an update on them prior to
the 1997 Tang gift.
Controversies over attributions are no slight
matter if we care about education and history more than reputations
A respect for cultures other than our own is
also very important and regardless of the attribution controversies
there can be little doubt that the new attention paid handsomely
at the Metropolitan to Asian and Southeast Asian art will open
many wondrous eyes. Coupled with the Michael Rockefeller
Wing of tribal and pre-Columbian art and the Japanese and Islamic
art galleries, the Metropolitan has taken giant steps to revising
our perception of the world.
It has many great European paintings, such
as El Greco's View of Toledo, Van Eyck's Judgment Day, a great
Carpaccio, a great Georges de la Tour, several superb Vermeers
and Rembrandts, a great Sassetta, the incredible "Expulsion
from Paradise" by Giovanni di Paolo, a wonderful "St.
George" by Carlo Crivelli, some fine small Flemish portraits,
Rubens's Fox Hunt and an excellent Veronese, to mention the most
If one were not familiar with the National
Gallery in Washington and the great museums of Europe, one would
be quite impressed with breath and depth of its European paintings,
but for the connoisseur there are major gaps. Turner is underrepresented
as are the German Expressionists like Nolde and Kirchner, Botticelli,
Bosch, Caspar David Friedrich, Raphael, Canaletto, Fragonard and
Schiele. Its 20th Century European paintings are also generally
weak in masterpieces and with Cubism and Surrealism poorly represented
as is 20th Century American paintings. Great Renaissance altarpieces
are in absentia as are major works by many important artists.
Such lacunae, of course, are hard to fill and
rarely on the market. Yet other museums, notably the Getty, of
course, the Cleveland Museum and the Kimball Museum in Fort Worth,
have consistently shown up the Met in the quality of acquisitions
The Met benefited by several major bequests
of European paintings from Benjamin Altman, the founder of the
famous department store, Jules Bache and Robert Lehman, founders
of famous investment companies, and the Havemeyer family whose
fortune came from sugar. Hoving incredibly broke the conditions
of the Altman and Bache bequests that had called for their contiguous
display, a condition insisted upon and granted to Robert Lehman
and apparently also granted to the Annenberg collection, which
is only on view for six months a year during the lifetimes of
One can easily understand the desire of a museum
not to have restrictions on how its bequests should be displayed:
why not have all Vermeers in the same room, all Rembrandts in
contiguous galleries, etc. The Met, alas, is a jumble in this
regard and many visitors probably miss seeing some of its grandest
treasures as a result. There is no easy solution, of course. Frankly,
the Altman and Bache collections should be restored to unified
display given their historical importance to the museum's collections
and their very high artistic quality. This would help give a better
sense of the great age of "robber baron" collecting
in the beginning of the 20th Century.
Given the enormous crowds that usually are
found in the painting galleries on weekends and in the special
exhibitions at most times, it might also be a good idea to hang
the paintings slightly higher, perhaps two feet higher, which
would serve the dual purpose of increasing their security and
visibility over the slow-moving throngs plugged into the recorded
A few years ago, the museum opened up the Henry
R. Luce Center for the Study of America Art in which all of the
paintings and objects of art not on main display were available
for public viewing. The idea was noble, the implementation was
not. Many paintings were hard to view under the glarish lighting
in the narrow corridors of the study center. More important than
this frustration was the fact that a good number of the department's
best paintings were surprisingly relegated to this "back
alley," raising curious questions about the department's
connoisseurship as many on main display were of inferior quality.
The issue of connoisseurship is important and
is perhaps the single most important ingredient missing in the
There are seemingly countless delights at the
Met, but they often are forlornly abandoned to inconsequential
settings or off-the-beaten-path locations or juxtaposed with inferior
quality items. While it is impractical to suggest that each masterpiece
has its own room, like Mona Lisa at the Louvre or Las Meninas
at the Prado, more attention should be paid to sorting. One gets
the notion, sometimes, that the museum suffers from "the
art directors' disease" that has afflicted most newspapers
and periodicals and ignores content for the sake of stylish presentation
with the result that no clues are offered to help differentiate
Such an equalitarian approach (in which art
directors think all text is the same and only care about graphics)
can make for challenging games for the fledging connoisseur, but
it logically would lead to doing away with labels and a total
reversion to elitism. The museum has taken its educational mission
seriously in most instances and appropriately so. Indeed, museums,
whose primary and most important function is to preserve and safeguard
treasures, should be discovery places where imaginations are sparked.
A shotgun approach to display encourages viewers to look carefully
at everything so as not to miss something "important."
Unfortunately, in real life, not everyone has
years to amble through the galleries at leisure. The "Acoustiguide"
tours, of course, are one solution to this problem, and perhaps
the best, but not the only one. The National Gallery in Washington
has for years had printed sheets of information on each work of
art in each gallery available in each gallery. Not only does this
eliminate crowding as people peer over shoulders to read labels,
but it also permits the public to have something on which to take
notes as well as the information to take with them. In this electronic,
on-line age, it is not difficult to update such sheets to reflect
changes in the galleries. (The Met for many years has customarily
"snuck in," unannounced, some private collector's art
into the galleries in hopes of future bequests and ferreting them
out is always a surprise.)
Clearly, one can argue endlessly over "hanging"
policies and problems of crowd control. Indeed, there are many
New Yorkers who might wish to see the Met adopt the Frick Collection's
policy of not allowing any children under the age of 6 admittance.
Many have suggested in the past that the Met should be decentralized,
that its African Art collection should be in Harlem, its
Chinese Art collection in Chinatown, its American paintings at
the Whitney, its modern paintings at the Guggenheim or the Modern,
and so forth.
Its encyclopedic scope is both thrilling and
appalling. It is thrilling because one can quickly see how truly
wondrous different cultures are, and multiculturalism is very
important. It is appalling because the individual is overwhelmed
by the mass and distinctions are blurred. Not all cultures achieve
the same level of craftsmanship, refinement and sophistication.
Not all aspects of individual cultures are equally well crafted,
refined and sophisticated.
We are only seeing the distant tip of the iceberg
of the world's cultural heritage. The dream of on-line, finely
detailed catalogue raisonées of every artist in every culture
has not yet been realized. Reattributions and reevaluations will
continue far into the future. No matter how superbly computer
reproductions and printed media may develop, nothing replaces
an individual's confrontation with real objects. In museums, security
concerns inhibit such confrontations to a degree, of course, but
not unreasonably. (Indeed, auction houses would do well to adopt
more strenuous rules regarding the public's right to fondle art
objects, but of that more at another time.)
Like many museums, the Met has never had enough
space to display all its treasures. In the spring of 1999, the
museum began the redesign of its south wing for its Greek and
Roman art collections, part of which is shown above, that will
eventually require the removal of the existing restaurant, shown
in the photograph below. In May, 1999, The New York Times
reported that the museum's plan to move the restaurant into new
quarters around the Lehman Wing was being abandoned in favor of
moving it to the Central Park side of the large sculpture court
in the American Wing.
The cafeteria will relocate to a facility on
the ground floor.
In June, 2003, the museum
closed its cafeteria at its south end and opened up a new eating
facility on its lower level with an entrance at the front of the
Lehman Wing at the rear center of the museum.
The new cafeteria has a
greatly expanded and slightly more expensive menu. There are two
elevators and two staircases that permit access to it. The good
news is that its location is likely to make more visitors aware
of the Lehman Wing. The bad news is that it has rather low ceilings
and is not as grand as the former cafeteria.
At 126, the venerable Met has succumbed from
its limestone and red-brick masonry origins to glossiness. Only
its Fifth Avenue facade has not been glassed in or cloaked in
blank egg-cream walls. The main entrance of the Fifth Avenue facade
is invariably marred by the huge pennants announcing current exhibitions.
These pennants once were made with some design consciousness,
but rarely now although the banner announcing the reinstallation
of the Chinese Paintings galleries in 1997 after being closed
for three years is not bad. They obscure the fairly handsome entrance
with no artistic flair and should be relegated to blank walls
on the north and south sides of the Fifth Avenue frontage and
they should be designed with some artistry.
The front steps are probably the most popular
in the city, but are not particularly handsome and the arrogance
of its sitters is contemptible for many senior citizens who often
cannot even reach the scrawny brass banisters for support.
The two fountains that flank the stairs are
pathetic in their lack of design and were not part of Richard
Morris Hunt's original design as shown on the cover of the museum's
catalogue of its exhibition in 1996 on its architecture, shown
above a bit enhanced digitally and also showing finished sculptures
that do not exist still atop the columns. Hunt, of course,
envisioned that the tops of the double columns would sport huge
sculpture groups heralding the arts, but the uncarved stones one
of which is shown below, remain to this day, marring an otherwise
Hopefully, some rich kid will donate enough money to
replace them with marble fountains and perhaps George Rickey sculptures
or Isamu Noguchi sculptures, or whatever. Perhaps the same rich
kid will also fund some artistic way to cover the large stretches
of blank wall that remain near the rear of the museum facing the
park and perhaps, even more importantly, fund enough security
for the museum to open its Central Park entrance, which could
save millions of visitors a lot of walking. Of course, patrons
as wonderful as Lila Acheson Wallace, who provided the flowers
in the grand lobby, are rare. It is inexcusable that any galleries
are closed for lack of security. On many occasions, the Met has
closed off major sections for long periods, ruining many a visitor's
trip to New York.
It's too late to decentralize the Met and it
is politically impossible for it to encroach further into Central
Park to accommodate its needs.
Some future benefactors may well decide that
their collections would be better off in smaller institutions,
especially since the Met's proliferation of named galleries and
wings and the like has become a farce with Johnny-Come-Latelies
garnering more incised space than the titans who really made significant
Hopefully, nevertheless, the museum will get
more masterpieces to fill in its lacunae and perhaps it will see
fit to grow upwards.
Why not carry forward Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo
and Associates' upward slants into some pyramidal form in the
center of the museum, well behind the Fifth Avenue frontage, designed
by McKim, Mead & White and completed in 1926, and the small
pyramid of the Lehman Wing, which is visible at the left in detail
shown above from the cover illustration of the museum's Summer
1994 Bulletin. Hopefully, such a pyramid could be sculpted so
that Roche need not be accused of impinging on I. M. Pei's motifs
while significantly adding what will be sorely needed space.
There are very stalwart critics of modern architecture
who deplore the end of the Beaux Arts and City Beautiful movements
who were certainly offended by Roche's glass drapery at the Met.
The new glass facades at the Met are slick, but uninspired. Skylights
in museums are a mixed bag. Natural lighting can be very attractive
especially as it changes, lessening a sensation of entrapment
and entombment, but it can also create difficult problems with
proper lighting of objects and when unfiltered and direct can
be very damaging to artworks. The Charles Engelhard sculpture
court in the American Wing, which has the handsome facade of the
former U.S. Assay Office on its north side, is delightful because
of its size, and planting, and natural light, although it is an
abomination in its industrial and factory finishing.
There is a substantial large area that could
be covered by additional floors in the center that would also
tie the disjointed configurations together and provide a new landmark
in the park. Anyone who has visited the museum's Iris and B. Gerald
Cantor rooftop sculpture garden knows that its vistas, shown above,
are incomparable and can easily envision exciting uses for new
enclosed, terraced public spaces, such as a restaurant, that might
then free up more space for exhibition and administrative uses.
Such a plan might only add a few stories in height, which because
it would be angled and reflective, its intrusion into the visual
space of the park would be considerably minimized. The treeline
has already been broached, so why not strive for a fully integrated,
important, practical and inspiring plan.
The master plan has doubled the size of the
museum in 25 years by the addition of approximately 1 million
square feet of space. (The MetLife Building, formerly the Pan
Am Building, straddling Park Avenue at 45th Street, has approximately
2.2 million square feet.) As de Montebello said in his article
on "The Met and the New Millennium" in the same issue
of the bulletin, "...the Met can never be too big, for once
we acknowledge that it can be visited best only in sections, in
small tastings, then, as with a long menu or a box of assorted
chocolates, the more we have to choose from, the better."