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Perspectives Notes from Museum Leadership

Updates on The Met Collection and Cultural Property

Met director Max Hollein provides an update on The Met’s work on cultural heritage and, more broadly, The Met’s engagements across the globe.

Oct 3, 2023

View of The Met Fifth Avenue Petrie Court

The Met is a global institution in all respects. We display art representing over 5,000 years of human creativity from around the world. Over half of our millions of visitors travel great distances to visit the Museum—and the New York region is home to many large diasporic communities. We engage daily with colleagues and museums across numerous countries. Our Met community includes staff who hail from dozens of nations and speak more than 50 languages.

Great responsibilities come with being one of just a few universal art museums. I believe it is incredibly important for The Met to be engaging directly on key issues facing museums, and one priority in this area is the complex topic of cultural property. In the spring, I shared that the Museum would take the following actions: increase provenance research staff; research works related to certain art dealers and collectors; convene on cultural heritage topics; and form staff and trustee groups to examine and pursue the myriad issues in this area.

Mindful that there are no quick or easy solutions, I am happy to report that we are making sustained and significant progress.

Recruitment for the new provenance leadership position and three additional provenance researcher roles is well underway. We have received an abundance of applications for the roles, and the candidate pools are very strong. We expect to announce the appointment of the leadership position this fall, and we will share updates on the additional roles in the coming weeks and months.

The initiative to review sections of our collection requires great care, and work is ongoing in several curatorial departments. The Museum has revised its Collection Management Policy so that all loans of antiquities should have provenance dating back to 1970, the date of the UNESCO convention, as has been required for our acquisitions. In addition, an image and provenance information for all loans are to be available online. Related, loans not on view are not to be stored indefinitely in the building in an effort to focus our resources on works in the collection. Finally, we will soon post object pages for all restituted works of art—specifying that the object has been returned and to what country—in support of our commitment to transparency.

The Museum is currently making four significant returns. After The Met’s research led to a dialogue with the government of Yemen, we transferred title of two objects to the Republic of Yemen. As this nation continues to suffer from a harrowing civil war, they have asked us to continue caring for these objects until they wish to have them returned—a request to which we have of course agreed. Also, our ongoing engagement with the Nepalese government has led to our decision to return a 13th-century wooden temple strut and stone stele of a Vishnu triad.

Additionally, our research on works from Cambodia has led the Museum to reach a decision to seek action on a number of objects. As we have shared previously, upon learning of an investigation into a dealer related to works from Cambodia, we reached out to and have been cooperating with government authorities—which continues as we await their next steps.

In the spring, we began our new “Cultural Heritage Now” convening series, which brings to The Met innovations and perspectives from across the globe. At our first panel, we heard insights into the provenance research now underway at three very differently situated collections from three panelists: Andrea Bayer, Deputy Director for Collections and Administration; Lynley McAlpine, Mellon Foundation Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellow at the San Antonio Museum of Art; and Victoria Reed, Sadler Senior Curator for Provenance at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. We will soon be announcing a panel discussion on programs that are developing and strengthening capacity at cultural organizations around the world, as well as an event previewing The Met’s work with the World Monuments Fund across Africa.

In addition to pursuing these initiatives, we are also continuing our collaborations with colleagues and institutions around the world. The Met has for decades had programs in countries through which we exchange expertise and share resources with colleagues and fellow museums.

I am pleased to share that our collaborative initiative to develop cataloguing and digitization capabilities for Nigeria’s National Museum in Lagos—which will enable their staff to build a database for their permanent collection that is among the largest in sub-Saharan Africa—is well underway. This all builds on our long-term collaboration agreement with Nigeria, and I look forward to sharing updates in the coming weeks. In the spring, our Indian Conservation Fellowship Program marked a decade of global cultural collaboration, and we are presently preparing for a new residency initiative with the Department of Greek and Roman Art to exchange expertise and training by hosting scholars in Cycladic art from Greece.

Displaying our collection to the widest possible audience drives all of our work. We are using the temporary closure of the Michael C. Rockefeller Wing as an opportunity to share 130 highlights of our important Oceania collection with other audiences around the world—over 235,000 visitors engaged with The Shape of Time exhibition in Shanghai over the summer, and the exhibition will open at its second venue in the National Museum of Qatar, Doha, next month. Other significant displays include a large group of works from the Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art on view in Korea, and in January the Department of Asian Art’s powerful exhibition Tree and Serpent: Early Buddhist Art in India, 200 BCE–400 CE will go on view at the National Museum of Korea.

Finally, our continued support for Ukraine during the war reflects another means through which The Met directs our resources to aid cultural institutions around the globe. In September, we were honored to host a visit from Ukraine’s First Lady, Olena Zelenska, where we presented the work we have done to help Ukraine’s museums protect their art, train U.S. military in the protection of cultural heritage, re-classify some pieces in The Met collection to more accurately reflect the Ukrainian nationality and culture represented, and create meaningful upcoming social media and digital initiatives that will feature Ukrainian-language content on Met platforms. Here’s a post the First Lady shared of her visit.

All of this work is important—and it requires great rigor. Some initiatives can move quickly, others will take much more time. Each region and each object has its own history, and it is our responsibility to ensure that the appropriate care and action is taken. It is also our responsibility as a leader within the field to share resources and use our leadership position to assist our museum peers.

Many areas of The Met are engaged in this work—for which I and the Board of Trustees are most grateful. I look forward to providing continued updates.

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