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Perspectives Materials

Immaterial: Space, Part 2

Behind the scenes at The Met.

July 2

South-facing view of The Met exterior steps from the 5th Ave plaza. Sunlight hits the building facade, and the steps bustle with seated and standing visitors.

What is hidden in the ‘empty’ spaces of an art museum?

The Met is more than a museum of art. It is a city unto itself: population 2,000, with a transient population of 5 million. The Met is 21 buildings nested together like puzzle pieces, and it takes 400,000 light bulbs to illuminate all the spaces. But who actually changes those light bulbs? In this episode, peek behind the curtain and meet the people who maintain the hidden ecosystem of The Met.

Read the complete transcript below.

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Season 2 of Immaterial is made possible by Dasha Zhukova Niarchos. Additional support is provided by the Zodiac Fund.


CAMILLE DUNGY: So much of our understanding and appreciation of a space is about who is looking at it. After all, space often looks empty. But when you spend time with certain people you can see what they see—what maybe only they can see—all of the many, many things that fill a space if you just know what you’re looking for.

This episode we wanted to spend time with a handful of people who see space in a very interesting and distinctive way. Space isn’t something you normally think about, but when you do, you start to “see” it as a very active part of art and our experience of it.

Because once you do, whole new worlds are revealed. If you can make the invisible visible, space as a material is suddenly as rich and complicated and interesting as stone, wood, or any precious metal.

And we’d like to do that in a space we know well: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

I’m Camille Dungy, and this is Immaterial.

MARCO LEONA: I would say that the first experience is always walking up the Great Stairs. In my case, it was July of 2003.

DUNGY: The Met has two giant flights of stairs. One is outside, taking you into the Museum from Fifth Avenue. The other is once you're inside, taking you from the lobby to the galleries. Everything about ascending those stairs feels important. Marco Leona was going for his job interview to work at the Museum, and everything about it made him a little anxious…

View of The Met facade, looking up from the exterior steps at 5th Ave. The building's columns, arched windows, and architectural treatment along the roofline are dramatic and imposing.

View of The Met Fifth Avenue's Great Steps. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. June 2016. © Floto+Warner for The Metropolitan Museum of Art

LEONA: And it's kind of natural, this type of architecture is designed to create these type of emotions. The Great Steps of The Met are not there to make them feel warm and fuzzy. It's a pedestal. Now, if you step over those stairs and get in, you do have a sense of achievement. Nobody will stop you. And as Philippe de Montebello used to say, once you are here, you are part of the elite. This can be a controversial thing, but there's no barrier. The building is imposing, but as you make it up, you're there and you feel like, I want to be part of this greatness.

The Met, at once, it's imposing in its scale and the depth of the collection. But it's also welcoming because the people who work here have made an incredible effort in making this a place for the visitor.

DUNGY: This is Marco Leona.

LEONA: I'm the head of scientific research at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

DUNGY: Marco leads a team of twenty people who use science to think about the materials in The Met. And as part of this work, Marco has to think about space…a lot.

LEONA: When you think about The Met and what it means to be a scientist at The Met, a person who is concerned with the physical nature of things, with the thinginess of things, and the way this building came about and developed are probably the biggest challenge.

DUNGY: It's wild how truly complex The Met really is.

LEONA: It's the largest museum in the United States.

DUNGY: One of the largest in the world.

LEONA: It probably has the largest staff of any museum in the world.

DUNGY: It was first built in the 1880s and…

LEONA: The original building of red brick and white and black stone is still here in its entirety.

DUNGY: Because The Met wasn't designed like any conventional building. It was added to and added to again and again over the course of more than a hundred years. With every expansion, a new architect would come in with a new vision. And often they would build their new spaces on top of, beside, or within the previous ones. And then the next one would do the same. And so on and so forth…

LEONA: Until about 1980. We stopped expanding then. But we didn't stop building. We simply tore down and rebuilt pieces of this puzzle.

DUNGY: For Marco and his team of scientists, the puzzle requires seeing the whole picture of this immense space but also thinking practically about every last inch. Asking the kinds of questions visitors might not think to ask.

LEONA: Imagine that you're asked to give your opinion as to what environmental conditions we should have for the health of the collection. What's the temperature that we should keep? What's the humidity that we should have? How much they should vary?

DUNGY: It's hard enough to think about how to control the thermostat and humidity in a small apartment in New York City. By one estimate The Met contains over 3,100 average New York City apartments worth of space. Controlling the weather here is another thing altogether.

LEONA: We're four city blocks of surface area, we’re as long as the Empire State Building is tall.

DUNGY: It’s the largest building in New York City. The collection is visited by five million people a year. And then behind the scenes…

LEONA: I think that for every square foot of galleries, we have probably two square feet of other space. Storage, offices, attics, roofs. I think if you add the roofs, we can probably say that the ratio is four to one, unseen to seen.

DUNGY: The building considerations are endless. Marco still marvels at the details and he's been doing the job for twenty years. He also marvels at the largely invisible army that makes the spaces of The Met what they are. Nearly two thousand people work at The Met.

LEONA: The electricians, of course the guards, the roofers, the lampers. Think about the average ceiling height at The Met and the fact that we have something like 400,000 light bulbs. When you walk around the Museum before or after closing hours, you notice it's people going around changing light bulbs.

DUNGY: Those are the people who spend their days going around the Museum and making sure no visitor is ever distracted by a light flickering on and off over a priceless work of art. They think about it all the time so no one visiting has to.

LEONA: So those colleagues of mine…are the real stars of The Met.

DUNGY: I’d like you to meet a couple of Marco’s colleagues who balance two of the other stars of The Met: visitors and the artwork itself.

We met Anna Serotta and Eric Breitung in Gallery 133. Anna is a conservator. Eric is a scientist. They work together to think about how the spaces of The Met can best serve visitors and preserve objects like the one we're standing next to: the Coffin of Irtirutja.

Elaborately decorated wooden Egyptian coffin. The figure represented wears a blue headdress and dramatic collar. Painted scenes cover the torso area, and hieroglyphics mark the lower part of the coffin.

Coffin of Irtirutja, 332–250 BCE. Egypt, Northern Upper Egypt, Akhmim (Khemmis, Panopolis), Ptolemaic Period. Plastered, painted, and gilded wood, 78 1/4 x 20 1/4 x 20 1/8 in. (198.8 x 51.5 x 51 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Funds from various donors, 1886 (86.1.52a, b)

It's a six and a half foot long, elaborately decorated, human-shaped wooden Egyptian coffin that's thousands of years old, and it's in great shape for its age. The colors are striking: bold teals, mossy greens, and bright burnt sienna on the depictions of human-like figures. From what we can tell, the coffin was first created somewhere around 250 BCE. By the time it was brought to The Met in 1886, it had survived almost two thousand years. Today, it's Anna and Eric's responsibility to make sure that this coffin stays in pristine condition for the next two thousand years. And that's a big responsibility. Because it's not easy to make sure a wooden coffin stays in the same condition as it did in the arid desert of Egypt.

You might not see it happen right in front of you, but wood is expanding and contracting all the time based on the temperature and humidity. Think of when an old door sometimes swells in summer. Eric and Anna have to make sure that never happens to the art on their watch.

ERIC BREITUNG: There are people in the field attempting to measure movement of sculpture at that microscopic level. Putting very sensitive microphones on the objects and then changing the humidity level in the galleries. If it's a wooden object, for instance, that is expanding and contracting based on the humidity and the temperature in the room. If it expands enough, you might hear a little pop with this very sensitive microphone.

DUNGY: And that's Eric and Anna's worst nightmare. They don't want to be the ones under whose care a two-thousand-year-old wooden coffin finally cracks.

ANNA SEROTTA: One of the reasons we're concerned about these coffins often is that they're fragile in that they're just composed of so many different materials. They're made from lots of little pieces of wood cobbled together, and they often have really old repairs.

Two images with details of the decorated coffin. Cracks in the wood and fading paint show the overall wear on the object.

Coffin of Irtirutja (details), 332–250 BCE. Egypt, Northern Upper Egypt, Akhmim (Khemmis, Panopolis), Ptolemaic Period. Plastered, painted, and gilded wood, 78 1/4 x 20 1/4 x 20 1/8 in. (198.8 x 51.5 x 51 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Funds from various donors, 1886 (86.1.52a, b)

DUNGY: And the tricky thing is…what works to maintain the ideal form of an old Egyptian wooden coffin…might not be the ideal climate for something else in the same space.

BREITUNG: The objects are sharing spaces. I mean, sometimes they're very small. If you look at the glass vitrines, those are microclimates inside. There are specific ones I'm aware of where there's a wood object in with a glass object and the glass is the thing that's unstable. That if its humidity is too high for the glass, it'll start to crizzle and haze, and little pieces of glass will pop off of it. And the wood, if it gets too dry, it will start to crack. And so we've chosen a humidity that we try to keep that particular case different than the environment outside of the case, that's in between where those two objects would be happy. 

SEROTTA: What's easier to see is when an object will either rock or walk on a shelf. That's something we've absolutely observed, either during construction events or during large, loud music events.

DUNGY: This is probably obvious, but the metropolitan part of the Museum’s name means that there are a lot of things in New York City that cause vibration—construction, subways, heavy trucks. There was an earthquake in April. Oh, and all manner of events in the building, hundreds a year, that feature amplified music and sometimes dancing. A popular spot for these events is the large hall that features an entire Egyptian building…

SEROTTA: The Temple of Dendur, which is adjacent to a gallery that has a lot of really fragile works. 

DUNGY: Anna and Eric are among those responsible for making sure they remain in pristine condition, regardless of what's happening nearby. They need to make sure the Coffin of Irtiruja doesn't wake up and start boogieing.

SEROTTA: The works maybe are at, you know, at stasis in this museum environment. They're kind of stable. They're kind of doing their thing, sitting in their cases. But then we introduce something new, like a series of special events with really bass-heavy music.

It's one thing to have an event with a string quartet with no amplification, and that's fine, and that's great, but that's not the event that everyone wants to host here.

Some of the events that we've hosted have been tremendously exciting, and we want to be able to facilitate this, but in order to do so, we have to really understand the risks and the variables.

DUNGY: Imagine this: you're at a party at The Met. The night is ramping up. A DJ is on stage.

BREITUNG: As the evening progresses, people get more excited, maybe dancing starts. The dancing sometimes causes vibration.

DUNGY: And then, as the crowd starts to warm up more and more…

BREITUNG: The DJ will want more excitement, because people are getting into their music. They turn the volume up.

DUNGY: And as they turn the bass up and up, Anna and Eric are thinking about one thing: The space is filled with invisible vibration—what's happening to the Coffin of Irtiruja right next door?

SEROTTA: You can feel bass in your body, right? And so you can imagine also that other materials are taking this in.

DUNGY: Anna and Eric have set up measuring equipment near a few pieces to see what kind of impact the music has. So on any given night, when there’s a party starting at The Met, Anna and Eric are at their homes…

SEROTTA: In my pajamas, watching the vibration levels, and in a text thread with people who are on site.

DUNGY: Monitoring the action remotely from their phones. 

SEROTTA: So the event will be ticking along and then there'll be a jump and the vibration levels will be, quite a bit higher. And so we'll say, Okay, Those who are on site, what's going on here? What caused this change? And, someone who's on site could say, Hey, oh, the dancers have come out.

If people are dancing, the music gets louder, we look at these vibration levels that we're measuring, and we can say, Oh, you know what? I think this is starting to get a little too much. And so we go and we tell the sound engineer, Think you can turn down the bass a little bit?

BREITUNG: It's so useful to have these vibration monitors and to have a number that is our goal to stay underneath for the level of vibration. It's much easier to communicate an issue, especially when it's not subjective.

DUNGY: This has fundamentally changed the way Anna and Eric go about the rest of their lives. They don't see what we see. They see this invisible layer of space—of pressure—that's constantly shifting and playing with the world around us.

SEROTTA: A few years ago, I moved out of New York City, and my family moved to a little 18th century farmhouse, and I have to constantly be taking my conservator hat off because I think about the vibration of my five year old and his friends running across the second story. And because I know what I know about materials and the materials that my house is made out of. But I think that that's common to most people in our fields. We do have to turn it off sometimes because you are constantly in spaces where you're thinking like a conservator or a conservation scientist. It can be hard, but I do have to. Otherwise, you're constantly worrying.

DUNGY: In a moment, two people who study how you, yes you, use the spaces of The Met.


DUNGY: Visitors are the X factor of The Met. The most caring and dedicated staff could be the most diligent about protecting and defending a space, but without the public and all their wild unpredictability—what is the point? It’s just a building. And while most institutions talk about how they serve the public, there is perhaps no one who knows better what this actually means, day in and day out, than the Museum’s security guards. If those four hundred or so guards are doing their job, you as a visitor will never notice them. But they will almost certainly notice you. Their job, quite simply, is to pay attention—to what visitors want and need, to how they behave when they think no one notices, to how the space is being used, and to how it impacts everyone, including of course, the guards themselves.

This describes Louisa Lam. We met at the end of her shift. And not just any shift…

LOUISA LAM: Like, yeah, on a day like this, 25, 30,000 people.

DUNGY: It was a few days after Christmas, during school break.

LAM: Yeah, it was something. I was at the 81st Street entrance and it just never stopped the whole day. It was amazing. But on the upside, the people were many, but…sweet.

DUNGY: Louisa Lam is a senior security guard.

LAM: I've been working here for thirteen years, so that is a lot of time to be in this space. Guards have a really, like, strange and elastic relationship to space and time. So we spend an undue amount of time thinking about space and how we negotiate it.

DUNGY: The mechanics of the job are very, very often about helping people navigate the simplest problems, which, with the right mindset can be…an opportunity.

LAM: Having someone ask the same question over and over and over again is hard sometimes, but also, if one remembers, of course you're asking me where the bathroom is because you don't know, and the person before you didn't know, and the person before that didn't know, so okay.

There are some things that are always going to be obvious things like how do I get out, how do I go to the bathroom, how do I get to the cafeteria. But, once you assume that that's all anyone wants, you deprive yourself of an opportunity for an interaction that's more than that.

So, I need that. The day's long. I need the little sips of variation.

DUNGY: Louisa is also very sensitive to the telltale signs that someone is forming a relationship with a work of art…

LAM: The moment that someone is like really looking at something. They're looking at it straight on, and all of a sudden their head tilts a little bit, when they're like, not sure, but they're trying hard to receive it. That is a magic thing.

And we see that a lot. If we pay attention, and it's lovely to be able to bear witness, like receive that in a secondhand kind of way.

DUNGY: Being a guard is often being in a state where you're not fully there. Many people look through you, and your mind wanders. But every once in a while, guards get to be fully themselves. It happens at chance moments, you just have to be primed for it. Open. One of those moments for Louisa, she thinks about a lot. She was guarding a gallery with a handful of Van Gogh paintings.

LAM: I was standing in front of Cypress Trees, and some teenagers came in, and I was standing in front of it. It was pretty early still. And there were about five young men, maybe thirteen, and they came, they clicked, they left. But one of them lingered behind a little bit and stood next to me, looking at the painting, and he's like, What do you get out of this?

Van Gogh's Cypresses. The painting is awash in shades of blues, greens, and yellows painted in swirling, thick strokes. The cypress tree spans the left half of the canvas, surrounded by vegetation at its base and framed by distant mountains and the sky.

Cypresses, 1889. Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, 1853–1890). Oil on canvas, 36 3/4 x 29 1/8 in. (93.4 x 74 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund, 1949 (49.30)

And I was like, Well, if you let your eyes relax, you can kind of see them moving. You can kind of hear it moving. Like if you just let your eyes unfocus, it all starts to kind of go. And then like he kind of stood there for a minute and he was like, Whoa! And I'm like, Yeah, right?

And he brought his friends back to try. And it was a gratifying thing. It's nice to be able to share that. 

DUNGY: The guards are themselves experiencing the art of course, but…

LAM: We have a very different relationship with pieces than your average person does. Like your average person stands in front of something, like two seconds to twenty if they're feeling real generous about it, but we're there with the piece. Like, there are people that have put their lives into studying pieces that have spent less time with the physical art than we have, which is a weird thing to think about.

DUNGY: After years of watching, studying, Louisa has some theories about how people move through a space as vast as The Met.

LAM: I think there are nexuses of satisfaction and nexuses of dissatisfaction. There are certain pockets of The Met where people are absolutely where they want to be or close, and there are certain pockets where they most certainly did not intend to be there, and they don't want to be there, and it's not getting them any closer to where they want to be. And it has that energy about it.

Most people who are deep in the back of Old Master Galleries…to be there, you had to work at it. You want to be there. But there are other places, like the Linsky Galleries. Nobody wants to be there. Like, they think they're on their way to the roof, or they think they're on their way to the bathroom, but when they're in there, that's not where they want to be.

And that's not the Linsky Galleries' fault. It just happens to be, down the middle of the Museum, and it's sort of a maze. And they probably deserve a little bit more love.

DUNGY: It helps Louisa to know which kind of space she's in, so she can set her expectations accordingly.

LAM: if you realize you're in a spot where no one wants to be, you can then kind of gauge your energy and how to gently usher people to the places that they do want to be. You know, that's what your day is about. And if you're in a place of satisfaction, okay, you just need to pay attention and make sure people don't try to bond too physically with the art, and then it's all right.

DUNGY: Her time as a guard has taught her things about visitor's behavior that likely no one else notices.

LAM: For years, I couldn't figure out why people would come to Arms and Armor, thinking that that was the way out. But then I realized, people, when they're heading toward the Great Hall, they lose faith because it's a dark spot.

Behind the stairs, there's no natural light, but if they turn their heads a little, they can see Arms and Armor. Where there is natural light. So even though they know that that's not the direction that they need to go, they head toward the light. And turn away from where they need to go. People are sparrows.

DUNGY: Other secrets of the space that you notice after a while…

LAM: If you make platforms the same color as the floor, people won't see them. They'll walk right into them and bruise their shins. That's a thing.

DUNGY: Also…

LAM: If you put stairs outside of the line of sight, people will walk right past them. They won't see them at all.


LAM: People naturally want to go counterclockwise in a room.

DUNGY: Wait, there's more…

LAM: There's a killer stair. In Arms and Armor leading up and down from Musical Instruments. And we've had multiple people take a fall. And, it's not even where the major stairs are. It's just the two that lead down to level one. I don't know what it is about that spot. They just think they're done. And I think they’ve put rumble tape or something on those stairs now finally.

DUNGY: There is no one philosophy for how to be a guard. Of the four- to six hundred guards at any given time working at The Met, there are an infinite number of approaches to how to best serve the art, the visitors, the space. After years of practice, Louisa believes…

LAM: The best way to protect a thing is just to be present. Like, you don't actually need to talk to someone.

You just have to make them see you, and then they know they should probably be on their best behavior, and it's not even conscious. I think it's sort of a childhood thing. It's like, oh, there's a person in a uniform. And, also to make sure that people are being good to each other. Service is a funny thing this way because, we put a lot of focus into the prettiness of the space, the seriousness of the art or, the gadgets, the lighting, solid material things…

But a person in the room that is engaged with that room, like I think that's the difference between a successful space and not. It pulls it together. And if you do it well, it looks like you're doing nothing. And that's a hard thing to explain to someone in terms of value.

DUNGY: Louisa is tasked with protecting the art and objects of the Museum, but by inhabiting The Met she's become a student of how its spaces are used, the effect they have on people and how she is part of those spaces. She's learned on the job for years not how spaces should work, but how they actually do.

The next person I want to introduce you to is also a student of how spaces are used at The Met, and she thinks deeply about visitors. But Frida Escobedo has a different reason for looking at how people use a space (or don’t). She's the newest architect to add to the Museum. In 2022 she won the commission to design and build the new Tang Wing for contemporary art. She's joining a long tradition. The Met is less A museum and more a series of museums and Frida's task is to figure out what she'd like to continue and what she'd like to change. The actual construction won't begin for four or five years, so now she's spending as much time as she can in the space, observing its patterns and rhythms and thinking about the power and potential of every little bit of it. Starting with the first place people experience when they visit.

FRIDA ESCOBEDO: We are walking up the steps of The Met, this very iconic architectural feature of the Museum.

DUNGY: These stairs feel important, three flights of granite that take you up, up, up to a towering, columned facade. But what Frida notices…

ESCOBEDO: People gather around here.

DUNGY: …is that they've been repurposed, reclaimed.

ESCOBEDO: Because they're steps, they become a theater. It is a stage. I think usually people think of steps as very intimidating, especially when they're heading to a very grand entrance, but I think here the steps of The Met have become like this public space that people appropriate and therefore it feels a little bit less intimidating, and it's warm and welcoming.

DUNGY: Frida was born and raised in Mexico City.

ESCOBEDO: We're entering the Great Hall. It's one of the first memories that I have of New York. Coming here as a child, I was probably seven or eight. And I remember my mother taking me to The Met. And this was the first space that I thought was just like so magnificent.

A bustling photo: people are gathered at the information desk, looking at maps, and resting in seats, against the majestic columns and domes of The Met's Great Hall.

View of the Great Hall. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. June 2015. Photo by Brett Beyer / The Metropolitan Museum of Art

I do remember, it was cold and there was like this contrast between like the windy street and then coming up the steps and finding this grand vestibule filled with flowers and people that felt very warm.

DUNGY: The outside stairs lead you to the entrance and the Great Hall. And then another grand set of stairs takes you to the galleries that feature European paintings. Walking up those stairs today, Frida is both walking in the footsteps of her previous self, and she's also walking through hundreds of years of history.

ESCOBEDO: Like time traveling. And place traveling, which sometimes are the same, you know, like when you move around space, you move around time.

DUNGY: When she stops at any point and looks around at all the different objects, it's dizzying.

ESCOBEDO: You can see relationships between time periods and styles and themes. And that's one of the things that I like the most about The Met, that you can create these connections.

It's almost like a constellation that you can draw out of a universe of human culture.

DUNGY: Creating a space within a museum is different than designing an office or apartment building.

ESCOBEDO: So it's just like all this collage of architectural styles and little niches. Like you're seeing a room within a room and it's a sequence of spaces.

DUNGY: To start thinking about what spaces she might want to create at The Met, Frida set up offices and used this as an excuse to hang out, day-to-day, and to watch and learn. She would often get turned around.

ESCOBEDO: I still get lost in The Met.

I think it's the same way that you understand a city. You think you know it, but you always discover new things. And because it's a living organism, it's always shifting and changing.

But you will never understand the totality of the building because it's always unfinished. It needs to be completed both by construction and then by how people live in the space and how they modify the space. So by the time you start understanding what you were proposing, it has already changed.

DUNGY: Before she was an architect, or really knew what that was, Frida knew that she enjoyed looking at people.

ESCOBEDO: Yes, my father is a doctor, so I had to come with him while he was on surgery. So there were long waiting hours for me and there was no smartphones or iPads at the time. And sometimes I didn't even have like a coloring book or anything. Because it was an emergency.

So my favorite thing to do was just to look out the window and see people. Moving in the street or just in the apartment buildings right next to the hospital.

DUNGY: It was a way of creating a space for her imagination.

ESCOBEDO: Inventing these stories, and wondering like where they came from or why they made a specific decision in the way that they were decorating their homes or what was the family history, how many people were living there. And it was a different type of people watching. The same as people do on The Met steps where you're imagining like where is this person coming from, where do they work? Are they New Yorkers? Are they tourists? Why are they in a rush?

DUNGY: This thinking about people, imagining their lives, is such an important part of Frida's work.

ESCOBEDO: One of the reasons why I chose architecture is because it allows me to understand how people behave. Architecture is like a fine art, but it's not just about the aesthetics and proportions. It's incomplete without people.

DUNGY: In fact, maybe the question should be, how does designing a building better help her think about people?

ESCOBEDO: And it's like when architecture really works is when it starts creating different relationships that people maybe didn't expect.

But when you're designing a public space, it's almost like writing a song or writing a book, you don't know if it's going to reach out to people and they're going to feel connected. So maybe what you were trying to express becomes a question to someone else. It's always like, is it just a geometric gesture, or is it actually creating the conditions for other things to flourish?

DUNGY: One of the questions that Frida thinks the building asks visitors is, is this space for me? How do I feel when I walk through the doors? How does that affect my experiences inside?

ESCOBEDO: It's a very imposing building. It's almost like in the pedestal. It has a set of stairs that you need to approach, like you need to reverence to the building.

Maybe that's one of its strengths right now. Because it kind of invites you to this other world. Knowing you need to disconnect from the city. And it becomes an extended portal.

You go through the plaza, you go through the steps, then the main hall, so you're shedding off layers as you're moving into the space, and by the time you arrive to a vitrine to see a very delicate Islamic book with precious illustrations, you're ready to see that contrast.

DUNGY: While other parts of its power might get in the way.

ESCOBEDO: These are very classical buildings, no? Like, they represent an architectural ideal that comes from a very specific geography—Europe and North America. And I think, even though The Met holds a very vast collection of other geographies, there are certain specific architectural styles that are not necessarily represented.

DUNGY: Frida thinks maybe with her roots in Mexico City she could…tweak that.

ESCOBEDO: We can start like also representing other places, other material strategies, other ways of understanding how we relate to space in a different way.

DUNGY: But it's always kind of a shot in the dark, or a message in a bottle.

ESCOBEDO: We're talking about a wing that is about the present and the future as opposed to the rest of the Museum which is talking about the present and the past.

Architecture is a very slow craft. Buildings this dimension take years to be produced by a very large group of people.

So the biggest challenge is how to wonder what the future may hold and that's a question that nobody knows how to answer. So it's like trying to design a public space where you're just writing a letter and you're hoping for someone to receive it. No? Whether it's a stranger or someone in the future and for the space to still be adequate and flexible enough so it feels of that time as well.

DUNGY: Spaces like The Met are machines for creating empathy and understanding, and they are cities that force us into contact with each other and the unexpected…

ESCOBEDO: Whether it's more obvious, like trying to peek through a window, or just reading a biography, or just thinking about where people are going, guessing where they're coming from, on the street. We're always trying to connect with their stories so we can understand our own.

I think that space is my medium. It's a way that I am able to understand relationships between people, but also to understand time, to understand where am I located and to understand myself.


DUNGY: Immaterial is produced by The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Magnificent Noise.

Our production staff includes Salman Ahad Khan, Ann Collins, Samantha Henig, Eric Nuzum, Emma Vecchione, Sarah Wambold, and Jamie York.

Additional staff includes Julia Bordelon, Skyla Choi, Maria Kozanecka, and Rachel Smith.

This season would not be possible without Andrea Bayer, Inka Drögemüller, and Douglas Hegley.

Sound design by Ariana Martinez and Kristin Mueller.

This episode includes original music composed by Austin Fisher.

Fact-checking by Mary Mathis and Claire Hyman.

Special thanks to Adwoa Gyimyah-Brempong. 

Immaterial is made possible by Dasha Zhukova Niarchos. Additional support provided by the Zodiac Fund.

This episode would not have been possible without Head of Scientific Research Marco Leona, Conservator Anna Serotta, Scientist Eric Breitung, Senior Security Guard Louisa Lam, and architect Frida Escobedo.

And special thanks to Maureen Catbagan, Iva Keselicova, Michael Millican, Elizabeth Reyes Moreno, Sarah Freshnock, Avery Trufelman, and Jennie C. Jones.

To see images of the artworks featured in this episode, visit The Met’s website at

I’m your host, Camille Dungy.


Marquee: View of The Met Fifth Avenue Plaza. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. October 2015. Photo by Brett Beyer / The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Season 1