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Spotlight on The Cloisters Library and Archives

Michael Carter
February 19, 2020

Cloisters reading room

The reading room of The Cloisters Library and Archives. Photos by the author unless otherwise indicated

Continuing In Circulation's series of articles celebrating the The Met's 150th anniversary, let us now briefly leave The Met's Fifth Avenue location and travel north seven miles to The Met Cloisters, the branch of the Museum devoted to the art and architecture of medieval Europe, and step in to The Cloisters Library and Archives.

In an earlier blog post, I recounted the founding of the library at the Cloisters and the important role played by the Museum's fist two directors, Joseph Breck and James Rorimer. It was Joseph Breck's personal library that was to be the foundation of the collection following his early death. James Rorimer's efforts in Breck's honor to secure funds and additional material ensured that, when the Museum opened in 1938, it would have the nucleus of an onsite library where staff and outside researchers could engage in the study of medieval art, architecture, gardening, and related topics.

The earliest stewardship of the library fell to Margaret Freeman, who throughout her five decades at the Museum would serve as lecturer, educator, curator, and, from 1955 through 1965, Curator-in-Charge of the Museum. (She also played a key role in bringing musical performance to the Museum and establishing the core designs of the Cloisters's three main gardens, designs that are still maintained to this day.) Eventually, a full-time librarian position was created to work in consort with the staff at both the Cloisters and Thomas J. Watson Library to ensure that The Met's northern outpost would continue to feature a dedicated research facility (click here for our Medieval Art Resources research guide).

Joseph Breck

Margaret Freeman

James Romimer

Top to bottom: Joseph Breck, Margaret Freeman, and James J. Rorimer. Rorimer is dressed for the festival for children of museum members at The Cloisters, 1954. The Cloisters Library and Archives, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

As time has passed, the library's holdings have grown to over fifteen thousand volumes, with our scope expanding beyond the Romanesque and Gothic periods to span from the Carolingian empire to the dawn of the early modern era, and to aspects of broader medieval culture and lifestyles. Thanks to the generous support of an acquisitions endowment from the Billy Rose Foundation—given in honor of James Rorimer—we are able to confidently keep on top of the published scholarship in our field. (See our "Collection Development Policy" here.)

Reading room, Cloisters

Reading room, Cloisters Library

The main reading room of the library appears in blueprints for the Museum as early as 1935. To furnish the room, the staff were able to draw on objects made available from a variety of interesting sources. Our distinctive wood and green velvet chairs previously graced the dining room of the Manhattan mansion of former Met President George Blumenthal and his wife, Florence, and they accompany heavy oak tables that originally were intended for the Unicorn Tapestries gallery.

Dining room

The dining room of George and Florence Blumenthal's mansion at 70th Street and Park Avenue, the previous home of the Cloisters library's chairs. The Blumenthal's dining table now resides in the Cloisters's staff cafeteria and the large tapestry to the right is in the Met's Medieval Art Department collection. From "The Residence of Mr. George Blumenthal," Town and Country 84, (Mar 1, 1930).

vintage postcard

Vintage postcard of the Unicorn Tapestries gallery featuring tables now located in our library, 1938. The Cloisters Library and Archives, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The stained glass oculus window—seen in the image at the top of this page—is not medieval, but nonetheless has an interesting history. It was created in the workshop of master verrier Jacques Simon, who had been commissioned to create replicas of the stained glass of Reims cathedral, to replace those destroyed in World War I. In 1927, the glass panel was presented to John D Rockefeller, Jr., one of the main funders of the Reims restorations. Rockefeller (who was a crucial figure in the creation of the Cloisters and its library) in turn donated it to us in 1936.

Aside from the main reading room of the library, we are fortunate to have two onsite storage spaces, both equipped with movable, compact shelving, to house much of our monographs, our oversize volumes, bound periodicals, and our archives and other non-book materials. Thanks to these spaces, all of our collections are held onsite at the Cloisters.

Cloisters storage

Compact storage in the library's stacks (left) and our archives (right)

To our researchers, the value of our archival holdings are on par with the library's collection. Aside from the curatorial, administrative, and construction documents of the Cloisters, we are also fortunate to have been gifted several important collections related to outside individuals and institutions, such as the art historians Sumner McKnight Crosby and Harry Bober, and the Brummer art galleries of Paris and New York.

While the Cloisters can't yet boast a sesquicentenary (along with a suite of special exhibitions, we marked our 75th anniversary in 2013 with another series of blog posts), our administrative archives do help illustrate the rich history of the Museum. Photo albums, correspondence, vintage promotional material, and other ephemera give a feel for how the Museum came together, and its place in the city and the world of medieval art.

Book covers

Selections from the Cloisters Archives's collection of posters related to the Museum

In fact, the archives even contain a miniature museum within itself. As Breck, Rorimer, Freeman, Rockefeller, and others were planning the Cloisters, a series of large models were constructed to provide a clearer view of how this complicated and unique building was going to fit together. In time, hundreds of miniature replicas of the art collection were created from plaster, wood, and cardstock, often hand-painted in full color. These were carefully conserved in the 1990s to be enjoyed in all their charm today.

miniature replicas

A selection from the hundreds of miniature replicas of Cloisters art objects, made between the 1930s and 1940s. The Cloisters Library and Archives, The Metropolitan Museum of Art


Interior, Cloisters Library

The Cloisters Library and Archives is located in Fort Tryon Park and is open to all by appointment. All of the library's holdings appear in Watsonline, the Museum libraries' online catalog. Requests for access to archival holdings should be sent via email and include a brief description of the research project.

For more in this series on the history of The Met's libraries, click here.

Michael Carter

Michael Carter is the associate Museum librarian at The Met Cloisters.