Updated: Sep 23, 2020
by Bart Boehlert
Previously over its long history, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the grand dame of the city’s arts institutions, had only been closed for three days. But like other museums in the city, it shut down on March for over five months due to the pandemic. Now, happily, the great building is accessible again and welcoming visitors. The Museum is open five days a week (closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays) and limiting capacity to 25%. Timed tickets can be purchased on the website. Since more New Yorkers are biking, the Museum is offering a complimentary bike valet service through September 27th. Each visitor’s temperature is taken before entry and masks are required.
Once inside, an advantage of the new restrictions is that the Museum is not overly crowded; there is plenty of space and room to enjoy the art. Up the grand staircase and down a few halls is a gorgeous, new exhibition which celebrates its 150th anniversary this year called “Making the Met: 1870-2020.” In ten galleries featuring 250 works of art culled from the museum’s 1,500,000 pieces, this show tells the story of one of the world’s premier art institutions.
Feeling that New York City should have a museum after the Civil War, a group of ambitious businessmen incorporated the Met in 1870, though it had no building, no art and no staff. At first, the museum was temporarily housed in the Douglas Mansion at 128 West 14th Street. In 1880, it opened on its current site on Fifth Avenue in a Gothic building designed by architects Calvert Vaux and Jacob Wrey Mould, which has since been completely surrounded by expansions. The Museum's Beaux-Arts Fifth Avenue facade and Great Hall, designed by the architect Richard Morris Hunt, opened to the public in December 1902. More recently architect Kevin Roche oversaw a modern master plan, and today the Met encompasses 2,000,000 square feet of floor space, is a quarter of a mile long, and spans 5,000 years of art.
The “Making the Met” show took two and a half years to organize reports Laura Corey, Senior Research Associate who worked on it closely with Andrea Bayer, Deputy Director of Collections and Administration. The 17 curatorial departments of the museum proposed a total of 1,000 art works which were winnowed down to the 250 treasures that are now displayed in ten themed galleries. A central hall runs through the galleries so visitors can wander between them, and at the end a window was uncovered to reveal a verdant view of Central Park and the obelisk “Cleopatra’s Needle.” “It’s a big exhibit with a lot of stories so people can pick and chose what they want to see,” observes Corey.
The show is indeed a rich eyeful, and worth more than one visit. On display is the sheer ambition of the Met, which started with nothing and matured in stature to acquire the best of the best. “It grew in its commitment to collect masterpieces of art from everywhere,” says Corey, “and has become the greatest collection of human achievement.”