In a flush of optimism following the Civil War, a group of businessmen, civic leaders, and artists determined to found an art museum in New York City. They took the first concrete step toward this goal on April 13, 1870, when The Metropolitan Museum of Art was incorporated. One hundred and fifty years later, we look back at the Museum’s history to celebrate the art it makes accessible to the public, to commemorate the people who propelled it in new directions, and to investigate its place in society.
Making The Met presents ten episodes in which the Museum’s course changed as it expanded its collection and launched new initiatives. At the same time, we recognize that we are living through further societal transformation in our anniversary year. In many of these cases, we reflect with pride; in others, we acknowledge our place within fraught histories. We have also considered the legacy of each episode, its staying power or evolution. Conservation studies presented throughout the galleries showcase the research that continues to deepen our understanding of objects in our care, and a central axis within the installation offers a path through time with a visual introduction to yesterday’s visitors and the inner workings of the Museum.
We open here with a selection of superb works from around the world and across time; each is inspired by the human figure, standing for the stories of art and people at the core of this exhibition
An Anniversary Year Transformed
Scheduled to open in March as the centerpiece of the Museum’s 150th anniversary celebrations, Making The Met was fully planned and partially installed when the Museum closed temporarily in response to the outbreak of COVID-19.
The exhibition explores pivotal moments in the history of The Met, and we unexpectedly found ourselves in the midst of another, shuttered for over five months when the institution had not closed for more than a few days since moving to its current location in 1880. Attention quickly turned to safeguarding the art and serving the community by creating and donating personal protective equipment to healthcare workers. We also reimagined our online offerings for audiences sheltering in place around the world.
In June, in the wake of the violent deaths of George Floyd and other Black Americans at the hands of the police and the ensuing Black Lives Matter protests, The Met joined the nationwide call for justice. As a first step, the Museum released a series of antiracism commitments, covering all of its activities, from programming to further diversifying our staff, with the goal of fostering an environment of equity, inclusivity, and dialogue.
These events have intensified our reflections about the Museum’s role in society, some of which resulted in updated and expanded texts for the show. Looking forward, we believe this moment will inspire institutional change and creative new forms of engagement in the latest chapter of our history, which begins now, in 2020.
Above all, this anniversary year, in ways both planned and unanticipated, has highlighted how it is people—artists, staff, and visitors—who make The Met. We are immensely grateful to welcome you back and hope you enjoy your visit.
The Met was born in 1870 of a grand idea but without art, a building, or professional staff. The founders, largely hailing from White Protestant New York society, quickly took important steps forward, at the outset acquiring and even hanging works themselves. The first gift to the collection was a Roman sarcophagus, followed by two large purchases of old master paintings and Cypriot antiquities. Other acquisitions, including American paintings, Maya sculpture, and armor from Turkey to Japan, reflected the exceedingly varied interests of New York collectors. Although not every object was a masterpiece or even original, they expressed the Museum’s aspirations to represent artistic traditions from all over the world.
The Met occupied two buildings in succession before opening its permanent home in Central Park in 1880. By the time the first director, Luigi Palma di Cesnola, died in 1904, the Museum was firmly established and prepared to embark on a new chapter.
The Met is now made up of more than 1.5 million objects spread over 2 million square feet and cared for by 1,600 staff members. Its mission to collect and display art from all cultures continues, with each generation reinterpreting that goal.
The year 1905 inaugurated a new era at The Met. The second director, Caspar Purdon Clarke, and trustee leadership promoted the educational mission of the Museum. They sought to reach audiences beyond traditional elite museumgoers, especially artists, designers, and students. To this end, while still acquiring artworks that were beautiful and rare, the institution also pursued ephemeral and utilitarian objects. These collections, meant for study and as sources of inspiration, encompassed art from a wide range of cultures and times.
This gallery highlights three collections and two curators who embodied this educational spirit: musical instruments and textiles, overseen by Frances Morris, the Museum’s first woman professional, and prints, headed by William Ivins Jr. These trailblazing curators opened study rooms for textiles (in 1910) and for works on paper (in 1917), encouraging access to art for all.
In certain areas, The Met has continued to collect a broad representation of a medium or type of object, from baseball cards to Bauhaus textiles. Visitors can still make appointments in study rooms to examine works of art that are not on view.
Frances Morris and the Textile Study Room
When Frances Morris, an acknowledged expert in European lace, was put in charge of the Museum’s textile collection in 1906, it was rich in lace but little else. To correct the imbalance and with the idea of creating a study room for “all persons interested in the study, manufacture, or sale of textiles,” in 1909 the Museum purchased almost four thousand “specimens of textiles, Peruvian, Coptic, European, and Oriental, sixth to nineteenth century” amassed by Friedrich Fischbach, a German design historian. With this acquisition, the institution announced that “our collection of textiles has attained a development quite equal to that of our laces; and it is hoped that it will prove of great value to students of the arts and crafts.” The following year, Morris opened the Textile Study Room, where objects were both safely stored and available for viewing when not on display in three adjoining galleries.
William M. Ivins Jr. and the Collection of Works on Paper
In 1916, following the acquisition of more than thirty-five hundred prints from the paper manufacturer Harris Brisbane Dick, the trustees hired William Ivins Jr. to build a collection that would rival the other curatorial departments. Ivins was part of a long tradition of museum professionals who began developing their expertise as private collectors and independent scholars. Faithful to the Museum’s educational mission, he believed that prints “throw open to their student with the most complete abandon the whole gamut of human life and endeavor, from the most ephemeral of courtesies to the loftiest pictorial presentations of man’s spiritual aspirations.” The pairings of masterworks with more popular works here reflect this methodology, which has continued to shape the collecting philosophy of what is now the Department of Drawings and Prints.
The Gift of The Cloisters
While living in France, the American sculptor George Grey Barnard was struck by “the glorious triumph of lightness and spiritual glory” he perceived in medieval art. To inspire art students with what he called the “patient Gothic chisel,” in 1914 Barnard established a private museum called The Cloisters in upper Manhattan. When that collection was offered for sale, John D. Rockefeller Jr.—who spoke with conviction about the role of beauty in life-—made its acquisition by The Met a reality, establishing and endowing The Met Cloisters, which opened in 1938 in Fort Tryon Park.
Mary Elizabeth Adams Brown and the Musical Instruments Collection
Mary Elizabeth Adams (Mrs. John Crosby) Brown almost single-handedly formed the Museum’s holdings of musical instruments, a collection of exceptional quality and breadth. Brown’s insatiable interest started as a project to decorate her music room, but became a lifelong passion. In 1889 she donated 276 instruments with the highly unusual caveat that she and her son could add or withdraw pieces over her lifetime as they saw fit. The collection expanded rapidly, and seven years later Brown recruited Frances Morris to help catalogue and arrange the instruments in the galleries. By the time Brown died in 1918, the holdings had grown to more than 3,600 examples. Morris, who was also the Museum’s textile curator, worked tirelessly with the instruments as well until 1929.
The news of retail magnate Benjamin Altman’s bequest in 1913 prompted the observation that The Met had reached “the forefront of the world’s treasure houses, with the Louvre and Madrid.” Altman and his contemporaries bought works comparable to those held by noble European families and left them to the Museum, both asserting their own status and demonstrating their belief that the public should have access to art of enduring value. The Met’s Gilded Age benefactors embodied the contradictions of New York society. These millionaires, who had converted “pork into porcelain,” dominated industries that often depended on labor conditions now regarded as intolerable.
Chief among these tycoons was the financier J. Pierpont Morgan, who collected on a staggering scale—some 7,000 of his possessions eventually came to this museum, while thousands of others were equally transformative for other institutions. A contemporary cartoonist depicted Morgan as a giant magnet for a mixed jumble of objects, but he was attracted above all to rare and precious artworks from illustrious collections.
Succeeding donors, including Robert Lehman, Charles and Jayne Wrightsman, Iris and B. Gerald Cantor, and Marina Kellen French, have been drawn to similar areas of collecting and have enriched the depth and breadth of The Met’s holdings immeasurably.
The Hoentschel Collection
J. Pierpont Morgan amassed large holdings of medieval art and seventeenth-and eighteenth-century French decorative art from the collection of interior decorator Georges Hoentschel. Léopold Stevens’s painting of Hoentschel’s gallery, hanging nearby, gives an idea of its appearance and style of display. Grasping the collection’s importance to artists and designers, Morgan immediately donated many of the decorative works to the Museum. Even the financier may not have fully realized what an impact his gift would have—it led to the construction of a new wing, which opened in 1910; the creation of a decorative arts department, the first of its kind in an American museum; and the appointment of an innovative curator, Wilhelm R. Valentiner, to lead the new division. Initially lent to the Museum, the medieval works were gifted by Morgan’s son in 1917.
Wealthy New Yorkers have long harbored a passion for rare, exquisite objects, a taste inspired by royal and noble European collections. From the beginning, The Met acquired exceptional works of art—from antiquities, armor, and Medici porcelain to Islamic and Asian vessels—through these benefactors. Gifts from J. Pierpont Morgan, including outstanding examples of medieval and Renaissance decorative art, enriched virtually every department. The Museum also purchased works once owned by distinguished collectors, such as Egyptian objects from the Earl of Carnarvon, famous for the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, and a Greek vase excavated by Lucien Bonaparte. This case also includes works given more recently by collectors equally passionate about great works of European sculpture and decorative arts.
Ancient art has always occupied a prominent place in the Museum, but at first the institution had to rely on gifts and the vagaries of the market to form its collections. That changed in 1906, when The Met launched its first excavation in Egypt, funded by J. Pierpont Morgan. An intensive archaeological program under directors Edward Robinson and Herbert Winlock expanded to other parts of the Middle East in the 1920s and 1930s and included medieval and Islamic sites. News of the fieldwork, illustrated by photographs, was shared with an eager public.
Objects ranging from monumental royal sculpture to fragments of architecture, armor, and domestic ware were brought to the Museum through a division of finds with host countries called “partage.” Excavation was an important means not only of building collections but also of gaining information about the historical and cultural context of objects.
The Museum no longer acquires through partage but still participates in archaeological projects for research and preservation, in collaboration with scholars around the world. Modern technology has allowed us to examine even the most fragmentary material, adding significantly to our knowledge of ancient artists and societies.
Archaeology and Partage
Many of the objects on view in this gallery came to the Museum through the system of partage (from the French partager, meaning “to share”), in which artifacts unearthed by foreign-led expeditions were divided between the excavators and the host or source country according to local antiquities laws. Host countries have enacted such laws at different times. Egypt, for example, first restricted the export of antiquities without a permit in 1835, while the Ottoman Empire’s earliest antiquities law dates to 1869. In the 1920s and 1930s, such laws were established by the British Mandates covering Palestine, Jordan, and Iraq, and by the French Mandate in Syria and Lebanon. By the 1970s and 1980s, changes in these laws had largely ended the practice of partage. Foreign excavations continued, but they focused on gathering knowledge rather than artifacts. The discourse around partage continues today. Some see it as fair and advantageous for all, while others consider it a system based on colonialism and exploitation. The Met does not pursue the partage of finds in any of its current excavations.
The Future of the Past
Today The Met’s engagement in the Middle East includes various efforts to preserve cultural heritage in areas affected by recent conflicts. In 2015, in partnership with Columbia University, Museum staff met with specialists from the region to gain a better understanding of the most effective ways to offer support. The participants overwhelmingly voiced concerns about the documentation of their collections, which were then under direct threat from militant groups. In response, the Museum developed a modular field kit to allow users to photograph objects in emergency situations. With funding from the Whiting Foundation, ten kits were created and shipped to Amman, Jordan, where Met staff trained Iraqi and Syrian museum professionals in their use. The outstanding quality of the resulting images (which were carefully linked to detailed records of each object) has allowed some of the participating museums to produce illustrated catalogues of their collections.
The Met in Central Park
The Met’s site in Central Park was proposed even before the Museum was founded. While the park’s designers, Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted, set aside a plot at Sixty-Fourth Street and Fifth Avenue, by 1869 the location was centered on Eighty-Second Street and Fifth Avenue. The Met opened here in 1880 in a building designed by Vaux and his assistant Jacob Wrey Mould. The Egyptian obelisk visible through the window, commonly known as “Cleopatra’s Needle,” was carved in about 1450 B.C.for Thutmose III, Hatshepsut’s coruler and successor as pharaoh, who destroyed her statues. The painter and Museum trustee Frederic Edwin Church helped determine its placement behind The Met, where it was installed in 1881 with great fanfare as a gift from the Egyptian government to the City of New York.
The Met’s identity as a museum for the United States—and for American art—traces back to its founding in the aftermath of the Civil War with guidance from eminent artists. Under Luigi Palma di Cesnola, the inaugural director, the Museum acquired this nation’s art intermittently. But beginning in 1905, the next generation of leadership deliberately developed the collection to promote a unified vision of the country in response to the latest massive wave of European immigration.
American art assumed new prominence through landmark exhibitions and acquisitions. Curator Bryson Burroughs and trustee Daniel Chester French, both artists themselves, expanded the collections of contemporary painting and sculpture. Patrons Robert and Emily de Forest championed the decorative arts, culminating in 1924 with the opening of the American Wing and its signature period rooms.
More recently, historical works by African American, Latin American, and Native North American artists, among those from other previously underrepresented communities, have been collected by the American Wing, reflecting a more expansive and inclusive curatorial approach.
The de Forests and American Decorative Arts
American decorative arts and architecture were not collected at the Museum during its first three decades, since no one was sure whether American furniture, woodwork, silver, ceramics, glass, and textiles actually qualified as “art.” This practice changed thanks to Robert W. de Forest, first secretary and then president of the institution, and his wife Emily Johnston deForest, an inveterate collector with a sophisticated eye. Both loved Americana, for aesthetic as well as patriotic reasons, and believed it could be used to teach history and elevate the taste of viewers. The success of the 1909 Hudson-Fulton Exhibition, which showcased American decorative arts and paintings, proved to Robert de Forest that “American domestic art was worthy of a place in an art museum.” The couple funded the new American Wing, which opened its doors in 1924 with three floors devoted to period rooms and decorative arts.
In 1929 The Met received what Director Edward Robinson hailed as “one of the most magnificent gifts of works of art ever made to a museum by a single individual.” Louisine Havemeyer’s bequest bestowed nearly 2,000 objects on the Museum from the collection she and her late husband, Henry Osborne Havemeyer, had built since the 1870s. With guidance from artists Mary Cassatt and Louis C. Tiffany, the couple were tastemakers who brought energy and clarity of vision to new fields of collecting. They are best known as the first American collectors of Impressionism—their bequest instantly elevated The Met’s holdings to world-class status. They also added new dimensions to a variety of other areas, from Asian and Islamic art to old masters and Tiffany glass.
The Havemeyer fortune derived from control of the sugar refining industry, which was known for its harsh labor conditions. In her own right, Louisine was a prominent suffragist—a reminder of the complex profiles of donors to the Museum.
The Havemeyers’ legacy of generosity extended through subsequent generations of the family. Also featured here are other collectors, most notably Walter and Leonore Annenberg, whose significant contributions have further defined the collections of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art at The Met.
The Havemeyers and the Sugar Industry
H. O. Havemeyer was a third-generation American sugar refiner who ascended through the ranks to the helm of his family business by 1876. In 1887 he incorporated the American Sugar Refining Company as the second trust in the United States. While consolidation into a trust purportedly led to a cheaper, better product, monopoly practices were ultimately outlawed to protect competition and consumers.
The business became known as Domino Sugar, with a refinery located on the Brooklyn waterfront. Raw sugar cane was imported predominantly from the Caribbean islands—where it was harvested using enslaved labor until slavery was abolished by 1886—and sold to refiners to process into crystal sugar. Most of the workers at the factory were immigrants who labored under grueling and dangerous conditions.
In 2014 Kara Walker created an installation in the former Domino refinery. Anchored by a monumental sphinxlike figure coated in sugar, A Subtlety responded to the troubled history evoked by the site.
Throughout the early twentieth century, The Met engaged with modern art warily and unevenly. With some notable exceptions, the Museum remained reluctant to embrace painting and sculpture that challenged conventional definitions of beauty and quality, such as Cubism and Surrealism. Moreover, The Met declined the offer of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s collection in 1929, laying the groundwork for the creation of the Whitney Museum of American Art. The opening of the Museum of Modern Art (also in 1929) reinforced The Met’s reputation as a repository of so-called classic art. A short-lived coalition between the three museums, which included plans for a Whitney Wing at The Met, was abandoned in 1948.
The Museum made significant strides in two areas: photography and design. It opened its doors to the former as a result of the persistent efforts of photographer and gallerist Alfred Stieglitz, which culminated in a 1933 gift of over 400 photographs. Between the world wars, the institution promoted American design and collected European modern decorative arts.
Recently, the Museum has endeavored to tell a more complete narrative of modern art, with transformative gifts such as Cubist art from Leonard A. Lauder and industrial objects and modernist photographs from John C. Waddell.
The Former Facade and the Petrie Court
This window offers a view of The Met’s 1888 facade designed by Theodore Weston, the Museum’s second architect, who blended classicizing elements with the Gothic style of the original Fifth Avenue building (visible in the Robert Lehman Wing). The Carroll and Milton Petrie European Sculpture Court below opened in 1990, filling out the building’s footprint in Central Park.
The Met and Black Artists in the Early Twentieth Century
Among the important modern-art movements The Met neglected in the early twentieth century was the Harlem Renaissance, an outpouring of creative talent and energy in literature, music, and visual arts throughout the 1920s and 1930s. The Museum’s lack of engagement with key Harlem Renaissance artists, such as Aaron Douglas, Charles Alston, and Laura Wheeler Waring, is especially surprising and regrettable given its close physical proximity to the neighborhood of Harlem, the foundational nexus of this international movement. However, the Museum did recognize early on the stature of Jacob Lawrence, who emerged as one of the leading Black artists of the twentieth century. It acquired Lawrence’s Pool Parlor in 1942 out of the wartime exhibition Artists for Victory. The work is on view in Gallery 903 in the Lila Acheson Wallace Wing in conjunction with the exhibition Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle, which runs until November 1, 2020.
Alfred Stieglitz and Modern Art at The Met
Alfred Stieglitz was not only a master photographer but also a tireless advocate for modern art. In the first decades of the twentieth century, he introduced many cutting-edge ideas to the American public through his luxuriously printed journal Camera Work and his gallery known as 291. These included avant-garde art from Europe and the promotion of photography as a fine art. Stieglitz supported the artists he admired by purchasing their work and, as a result, built an impressive collection of early twentieth-century European and American art. His efforts to convince The Met to collect and display photographs trace back to 1902, when he was rebuffed by Director Luigi Palma di Cesnola as a “fanatic.” Finally, working with curator William Ivins Jr., he “opened [the] sacred halls” of the Museum to photography through gifts in 1928 and 1933. After his death in 1946, the artist Georgia O’Keeffe, his widow, gave many of his modern paintings, sculptures, and works on paper to The Met.
Joseph Breck and Modern Decorative Arts
In 1922 Edward C. Moore Jr., son of the Tiffany &Co. designer and early Met benefactor, made a multiyear pledge to help the Museum purchase “the finest modern decorative arts of America and Europe.” Curator Joseph Breck quickly acquired furniture and objects in the new style. The Museum held its first exhibition of modern decorative arts in 1923, followed by a 1926 show of objects from the seminal Paris Exposition, held the previous year. The handcrafted pieces on display here reflect Breck’s belief that a new style “must attach itself to the main stem of tradition,” meaning the styles of earlier periods. One example is the “Etat” cabinet by Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann, commissioned by Breck when he visited the Paris Exposition. While the cabinet features traditional floral elements, the absence of applied ornament and the bold stylization of the flowers situate it within twentieth-century aesthetics.
Richard Bach and American Design
In 1918 the Museum took a leadership role in encouraging good design in America, hiring Richard Bach to make The Met collection available to designers, artisans, and manufacturers and to exhibit their work. Initially, the exhibited objects were required to have been inspired by the Museum’s holdings. By 1924 that requirement was eliminated, and for the 1926 exhibition, objects had to “represent the original thought and conception of their designers.”
For a presentation of industrial art in 1934, Bach specifically sought designs that were affordable to a broad public.
While The Met did collect modern decorative arts during the 1920s and 1930s, only later did industrial products enter the collection, most notably through a major gift by collector John C. Waddell in the late 1990s
World War II had a greater impact on The Met than any other conflict in the twentieth century. The Museum evacuated works of art, organized programming to bolster morale, and helped design military equipment. In Europe, Met staff, including Directors Francis Henry Taylor and James Rorimer, contributed to the Allied response to mass looting and the destruction of monuments. This group became known as the monuments men, and their experiences had a lasting influence on the Museum and its collections after the war ended in 1945.
A more complex story from this period is the purchase of impressive architectural reliefs from the ancient site of Tell Halaf in present-day Syria. The United States government seized several of them from their excavator, German national Baron Max von Oppenheim, while many more were destroyed by Allied bombings in Berlin. These stories call into question where art is safest during wartime and highlight some of the entanglements of museums in modern politics.
A recent project to document threatened cultural artifacts is explored in the fourth gallery, Collecting through Excavation, and the Museum’s role in moments of political upheaval will be the subject of a blog series related to this exhibition.
The journey of the stone sculptures of Tell Halaf reveals the difficulties of keeping art safe during war. In the early twentieth century, German national Max von Oppenheim excavated the reliefs in northeastern Syria and displayed many of them in his Tell Halaf Museum in Berlin. He brought others to the United States to sell in 1931, including those on display here, but they failed to find buyers. The pieces remained in storage in New York until 1943, when they were appropriated by the U.S. government as German property through the Office of Alien Property Custodian and sold at auction, where The Met acquired four. The same year, an Allied bomb destroyed the Tell Halaf Museum and shattered its contents. In 2001 Berlin museum staff began to piece together the broken objects from around 27,000 fragments, taking eight years to restore more than one hundred sculptures, architectural elements, and stone implements.
Monuments Men and The Met
Met director Francis Henry Taylor was a founding member of the commission that established the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Division (MFAA), a joint operation between the United States and Great Britain, commonly known as the monuments men. The heroic contributions made by three Met staff members associated with this mission had the most lasting impact on the institution and its collections. James Rorimer tirelessly preserved damaged monuments and stolen works of art from public and private collections across Europe, while Edith Standen worked at a special repository created to house artworks prior to their return to the rightful owners. Theodore Rousseau Jr. was tasked with interviewing Nazi officials to locate hidden art troves. The knowledge they gained influenced their scholarship, affected their pursuit of acquisitions in the postwar period, and solidified The Met’s commitment to responsible collecting practices and preservation of cultural heritage.
James J. Rorimer
James Rorimer was director of The Cloisters and later of The Met. As a monuments officer, he safe-guarded cultural heritage in France, uncovered tens of thousands of looted artworks in Germany, and in the aftermath of the war established the central collecting points in Munich and Wiesbaden for displaced objects. With first-hand knowledge of restituted collections and their importance, Rorimer later purchased restituted works of art for The Met, and especially for The Met Cloisters, through the endowment established by John D. Rockefeller Jr. Several of the finest are on view in this gallery.
Edith A. Standen
The daughter of a British army officer, Edith Standen joined the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps in 1943, just one year after becoming an American citizen. She served as a monuments officer, sorting, cataloguing, and restituting thousands of stolen artworks. The only woman in this division awarded the Bronze Star, Standen described the two years she spent in Germany as the most interesting of her life, and her experiences influenced her nearly fifty-year career as curator of tapestries at The Met.
The Met’s 100th anniversary was celebrated in 1970 with great fanfare and was marked by reflection on the past, present, and future of the institution. Among the milestones lauded on this occasion were the monumental gifts of the Temple of Dendur from Egypt, the Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection of Primitive Art (as it was regrettably called then), and Robert Lehman’s extensive holdings of western European art. Museum leaders believed that the collection was reaching the goals of the founders to illustrate 5,000 years of civilization. A new master plan, initiated by Director Thomas Hoving and completed under Philippe de Montebello, laid the groundwork for expansion and reflected the rise after World War II of a more international, less Eurocentric perspective on the history of art.
This was a booming period at the Museum, with crowds drawn to blockbuster exhibitions and headline-grabbing acquisitions. New collaborations with contemporary artists and expanded educational programming on Fifth Avenue and throughout the five boroughs signaled an aspiration to be more inclusive and reach a broader audience. However, The Met’s efforts during these years of social change in New York produced mixed results, eliciting criticism, especially among communities of color.
Transforming Islamic Art
It was a historic moment in 1975 when The Met unveiled a powerful and substantially enlarged set of galleries dedicated to Islamic Art, organized by scholar Richard Ettinghausen and his team. This landmark display captivated the public’s imagination and cemented the Museum’s endorsement of a burgeoning field of art history. It also conveyed an authentic voice of a region defined through its own cultural values. In order to bring coherence to diverse objects loosely linked by religion and culture, the field of Islamic art and consequently the galleries emphasized the unities of artistic production across a large territory. As the objects here attest, calligraphy was presented as the preeminent art form, and geometric ornament and vegetal arabesques were seen as a harmonizing decorative language. While the field of Islamic art today encompasses a wider geography and places a greater emphasis on diversity, the impact of the 1975 installation, both conceptually and stylistically, is still felt in institutions around the world.
Diana Vreeland and the Costume Institute
The Costume Institute, previously the Museum of Costume Art, was fully integrated into The Met in 1946. In 1972 legendary fashion editor Diana Vreeland was appointed as special consultant for the collection. Her immersive 1973 exhibition The World of Balenciaga presented fashion objects as autonomous artworks, highlighting the architectural and sculptural designs of the Basque designer, as exemplified by this barrel coat. In 1983 Yves Saint Laurent became the first living designer to receive a monographic exhibition at the Museum, curated by Vreeland. The designer’s fusion of high and low, art and fashion, is encapsulated in his iconic shift dress, often called the “Mondrian dress.” As a testimony to his enduring vision, this is the fifth Met exhibition to include the garment since its acquisition in 1969.
Engaging with Artists
Although living artists have made vital contributions to The Met since its founding, the centennial era, under the direction of Thomas Hoving, marked a turning point motivated by community and educational outreach.
The Met initiated a program to integrate American art into school curriculums and commissioned works in honor of the anniversary. Frank Stella designed a logo; Robert Rauschenberg created a print (on view nearby); Twyla Tharp’s company performed the first experimental dance at the Museum; and well-known composers such as Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland created fanfares for exhibition openings.
Yet Hoving’s progressive campaigns were not without missteps. One of the most significant controversies surrounded the 1969 exhibition Harlem on My Mind: The Cultural Capital of Black America, 1900–1968. In spite of feedback from a community advisory committee, the show included no paintings, drawings, or sculptures by Black artists, relying on photographic reproductions, documents, and a soundscape of street noises to illustrate the social history of Harlem. Artist-organized protests of the exhibition brought attention to the need for greater diversity and inclusion in museums, both on display and behind the scenes, an effort that is still underway.
A Rededication to Asian Art
Although the Great Hall Balcony has included a display of Asian art since 1902, the presence of these works in the galleries declined over the ensuing decades. As the Vietnam War heightened awareness of cultures to the east, The Met recognized that it could not ignore the region. In order to address this lacuna, Douglas Dillon, president of the board of trustees, and Director Thomas Hoving recruited Princeton professor Wen C. Fong to lead the rededication to Asian art. Bolstered by Dillon’s support, Fong acquired important Chinese paintings, Japanese artworks, and Indian and Southeast Asian sculptures, to name just a few, and opened impressive new galleries and evocative spaces like the Astor Chinese Garden Court. Thanks to the efforts of Fong and later curators and donors, the Museum now has over fifty galleries devoted to Asian art, embracing the full spectrum of traditional and contemporary forms of expression.
Recovering the Missing Chapters: The Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas
For most of its first century, the cultural traditions of a vast portion of the world were largely unrecognized by The Met. In an era defined by both the civil rights movement and the liberation of nations from European colonialism, the Museum began to confront what it means to present the art of all people and cultures. Ancient American art, which had had a flickering presence at the Museum since the nineteenth century, started to be acquired in earnest in the 1960s. Nelson Rockefeller, who had founded the Museum of Primitive Art (MPA) in 1954, an institution dedicated to three major world artistic traditions neglected by The Met, secured the transfer of the MPA’s holdings to the Museum, along with his personal collection. Both were housed in a newly created wing, which opened in 1982 and was named in honor of his son Michael, an idealistic young anthropologist who lost his life on a collecting expedition in New Guinea.
"Primitive Art" in New York
The Met created a department in 1969 with the foundational gift of Nelson Rockefeller’s collection. In the preceding decades, leading universities in New York actively promoted the expansion of art history to new areas, initiating programs in “primitive art” that grouped together African, Oceanic, and Native American traditions, and later those of the Ancient Americas. Scholars in those departments published foundational survey texts with titles that featured “primitive,” now considered retrograde nomenclature. Rockefeller had adopted that term for his Museum of Primitive Art (MPA), rejecting an earlier idea to use “Indigenous.” Importantly, in a departure from previous museological approaches, at the MPA these varied traditions were presented in their own cultural contexts, independent of Western modernism.
A Seat at the Table: Modern and Contemporary Art
In 1964 curator Henry Geldzahlerdelivered a memo to Director James Rorimer, urging him to develop a policy to redress the “isolation of modern art at the other New York museums.” He believed that The Met was uniquely positioned to contextualize and historicize twentieth-century art. Three years later, the Department of Contemporary Arts was established. Geldzahler expanded the collection and organized ambitious shows, notably his blockbuster survey New York Painting and Sculpture: 1940–1970, one of The Met’s centennial exhibitions. That said, he almost exclusively collected and exhibited White male artists. It was not until after a series of protests by activist groups such as the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition that he began to rectify these oversights. More significant change arrived with Lowery Stokes Sims, the Museum’s first African American curator, who championed the work of artists of color, women artists, and Indigenous artists between 1975 and 1999.
While in the centennial era the Museum claimed it had reached its goal of representing the art of all cultures, the past few decades have proved there will always be more fields to traverse. By the 125th anniversary in 1994, the Fifth Avenue building had met the limits of its footprint in Central Park, and focus shifted to evolving spaces and collections from within. The Met has since broached the digital frontier under Thomas P. Campbell, and current director Max Hollein has encouraged a more nuanced approach to representing global visual culture as a web of intersecting narratives told through multiple voices.
To this end, the institution has acquired outstanding works from previously underrepresented regions and cultures, from Southeast Asia to the reaches of the Byzantine Empire. Curators have simultaneously worked to present a more holistic view of the art of the Americas, including objects created by Black, Indigenous, and Latin American artists. Some of these gaps reflected long-held prejudices based on race, ethnicity, and gender. The growing collection of global contemporary art embraces diversity in all its forms and introduces new media, all situated in the rich context provided by the Museum.
This anniversary offers an opportunity to reflect on The Met’s history since 1870, up to the extraordinary developments that have marked the year 2020, in order to position ourselves for a more open and inclusive future.
Young 20th- and 21st-century viewers gaze at Washington Crossing the Delaware, 1851, by Emanuel Leutze. Left: Archival photo from The Met archives. Right: Photo by Roderick Aichinger. Composite image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York