Making The Met, 1870–2020

We started with no art, staff, or building. How did we get here?

150 years of transformation, and counting.

Making The Met, 1870–2020

In 1866, a group of civic leaders, businessmen, and artists banded together to establish an art museum for New York City. They began with a grand idea: that providing access to art could bring inspiration to all. One hundred fifty years later, The Met is home to over 1.5 million works of art from around the world, spanning 5,000 years of human creativity. How did we get here?

We’ve raided the archives so you can explore that transformation from behind-the-scenes. Keep scrolling to read stories, discover photographs, watch videos, and peek into the secret lives of artworks from the Museum’s first 150 years. You’ll leave with an introduction to the exhibition Making The Met, 1870–2020, and a chance to reflect with us on the power of art in our lives. 

Every artwork tells a bigger story

Many works at The Met reflect seismic shifts in what’s considered art, and why. Are photographs art? Or live performances with musical instruments? Is display significant? Asking questions about taste, materials, meaning, and more invites conversations that challenge fixed perspectives and traditions.

An arch-shaped photograph of a girl wearing a red-vest, seen from behind, kneels on a taupe carpeted floor and looks down presumably at a drawing she is making; she kneels in front of a Georgia O'Keeffe painting against a white wall. The painting depicts a cow’s symmetrical skull floating against what appears to be a cloth backdrop. The backdrop consists of one black vertical band running down the center behind the skull, a blue-white gradient emanating from the center and there is a red vertical band on either edge of the painting.

The secret lives of artworks

Artworks enter The Met collection in a variety of conditions. The passage of time takes its toll, but sometimes there’s more to their hidden odysseys. Read on to discover how they divulge their secrets to Met conservators who keep them safe for future generations.

Every artwork needs a hero(ine)

How does art get here? Thanks to advocates and pioneers, in and out of the spotlight. Take Edith Standen (beside the knight in shining armor), a member of the Monuments Men who rescued and restituted artworks stolen by the Nazis. After World War II, she became The Met’s tapestry curator. Now come meet more of the Museum’s art champions … 

An arch-shaped black-and-white photograph of a woman in a button-down uniform standing next to a suit of armor and holding a sculpture fragment of a human head in her left hand and a painting in her right hand.
Scholar Trailblazer

Meet a few of the personalities who brought new art to The Met

Fanatic Self-starter

Bashford Dean

Zoologist Bashford Dean studied primitive sharks in Japan, where he rekindled a childhood obsession: Japanese armor. An avid collector, he championed  works Western scholars largely ignored. In time, he became founding curator of The Met’s Department of Arms and Armor in 1912.

Armor (Gusoku), Japanese, 17th century


Louisine Havemeyer

Once upon a time in 1909, a Met Director damned French Impressionism as “Meaningless, Insincere and of No Lasting Value.” Thankfully, suffragette Louisine Havemeyer paid no mind. Instead, this rebel with a cause laid the foundation for today’s prized collection with her gifts in 1929.

Edgar Degas, Woman Having Her Hair Combed, ca. 1886–88


Frances Morris

When Frances Morris began at The Met as curator of musical instruments, she was its first professional woman hire. That was just the start. Eventually she curated all The Met’s textiles, too. Oh, and created the Textile Study Room in 1910, an educational initiative that continues to this day.

Cravat end or rabat, Flemish, mid-18th century


Alfred Stieglitz

Better late than never. The Met’s first Director told the photographer Alfred Stieglitz in 1902, “You won’t insist that a photograph can possibly be a work of art … you are a fanatic!” More than 20 years later, Stieglitz spurred friends and donors to give 400 images, which launched a photography collection on par with paintings and sculpture.

Georgia O'Keeffe – Hands and Thimble, Alfred Stieglitz, 1919


There still is a need for people to understand that a museum, and a big mainstream museum, is a place where they can find a home and find a voice.
— Lowery Stokes Sims, Curator 


Building an evolving portal to the world’s art

Got your ten thousand steps in? The building has expanded in tandem with The Met’s evolving approaches to collecting and displaying art from around the world. Around the Centennial, we built new wings to house non-Western and modern art. Today, artworks from ever more diverse cultures fill over two million square feet of gallery space.

An arch-shaped photograph of a craftsman sitting on wooden scaffolding suspended a few feet from the ground. He hunches over and looks intently at the impost of the marble archway before him, hand-carved with arabesques and islamic calligraphy.


There is not just one history of the development of cultures in the world. There are many different intersecting histories.
— Max Hollein, Director 



The museum, it doesn’t seem like it has an end. It just continues.
—Ray Cusie, long-time employee and artist


Now that you’ve gotten a peek of our story, come explore the exhibition in-person. 

Making The Met, 1870–2020 welcomes you to consider the people, ideas, and guiding principles that brought the Museum where it is today. Over 150 years, the Museum has evolved alongside changing views on art and world cultures. Today, we celebrate the multiplicity of perspectives that can expand our understanding and appreciation of art from all times and places.

Myriad stories remind us that the history of The Met encompasses not just art and the Museum’s physical boundaries and spaces, but also our place in the larger history of New York, our country, and the world.


Audio Guide:
Stream the Audio Guide, narrated by Steve Martin, to hear more from the people—artists, curators, donors, and others—who have shaped and witnessed The Met’s transformation from 1870 through 2020.


Exhibition Details

  • Dates August 29, 2020 – January 3, 2021
  • The Met Fifth Avenue 1000 5th Ave, New York City
  • Making The Met, 1870–2020 Gallery 899
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Image and Video Credits

The Primer is made possible by

Art Mentor Foundation Lucerne logo


Supported by

Logo of Bloomberg Philanthropies Driving Innovation Through Arts and Culture

and the Director's Fund.

The exhibition Making The Met, 1870–2020 is made possible by the Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Foundation.


Lead corporate sponsorship is provided by

© 2020 The Metropolitan Museum of Art