WALL STREET JOURNAL
February 4, 2016
Meet the Met
by James Panero
Visiting every gallery in the main building of the Metropolitan Museum of Art—a Grand Tour in a single day
I recently celebrated a milestone birthday and wondered how to mark it. Should I get out and see the world? Take on some new physical challenge? Try to figure out a way to turn back time? Then it occurred to me that I could do all three at once: I would visit every gallery in the main building of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It would be a Grand Tour—in one day.
The Met, of course, is the world’s great encyclopedic museum. Founded in 1870, it set its goal as nothing less than grouping “the masterpieces of different countries and times in such relation and sequence as to illustrate the history of art in the broadest sense.”
I’ve been going there since I was a child. And the more I see it, the less I really know it. So I loved the idea of spending the whole day there, attempting to appreciate it in its entirety rather than piecemeal.
I knew it would be a challenge. There are tens of thousands of objects on display out of more than 1.5 million in the permanent collection, overseen by 2,200 employees and 17 curatorial departments. They are spread across some two million square feet of space occupying two-plus floors, and housed in over 400 galleries, period rooms, and installations—a mind-boggling array. A few weeks earlier, when I asked Thomas P. Campbell, the Met’s director, how long it would take to see every room, he said: “Two years.”
Nonetheless, I was determined. So on a recent Friday, a bit past 10 a.m., I arrived at the main entrance on 82nd and Fifth Avenue, armed with a pen, a notebook and a good pair of sneakers. I bounded up the stairs and into Richard Morris Hunt’s ethereal 1902 Great Hall. I helped myself to a museum map, and made a right for Gallery 100, the beginning of the Egyptian wing and the first in the Met’s numbered sequence of galleries.
In her 1967 children’s novel “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler,” E.L. Konigsburg had her two protagonists live as runaways in the Met, hiding their clothes in an Egyptian sarcophagus and bathing in a Roman fountain as they uncovered a Michelangelo.What makes it so compelling is our desire to believe that, at the Met, we can all run away from the outside world, hiding in plain sight among the greatness of art.
One of the most renowned in the world, the Met’s Egyptian collection is also far more extensive than one would gather from simply dashing through it, as I often have on the way to its showpiece Gallery 131, the Temple of Dendur. And it still contains some of the best places for getting lost—just the thing for making unexpected discoveries. Gallery 100, for example, contains the winding corridors of the Tomb of Perneb from about 2381-2323 B.C. And Gallery 102 has the Tomb Chapel of Raemkai, from about 2446-2389 B.C., where relatives once laid down offerings by a door to the afterlife surrounded by figures carved in exquisite relief.
As I began to move from room to room, I started to notice a shift in what was catching my eye, a change in perception that would continue throughout my day. Without a special exhibition to see or a favorite painting to seek out, my attention was drawn to the smaller rooms and often their smaller objects. I was especially taken by the hidden corridor of Gallery 109, Middle Kingdom Objects from Lisht and Thebes, where an open-storage system displays hundreds of objects that might otherwise never make it out of the basement, such as scarab seals and pieces of personal jewelry from about 2000-1550 B.C. Gallery 118, Three Foreign Wives of King Thutmose III, likewise contains amazing sandals of sheet gold, c. 1479-1425 B.C., matched with finger and toe stalls—gold thimbles for the dead that, in their nails and cuticles, display a striking lifelike presence.
Keeping track of the Met’s galleries is easy. Each room carries a three-digit number, indicated on the floor plan and on the walls at its entrance. The numbers flow through the departments as the galleries meander through the museum. I followed the sequence whenever possible. I began to move department to department in a rough chronological manner and filled in with stops through the Met’s extensive non-Western collections. Crisscrossing the first floor, I checked off the rooms as I went. After the 38 galleries of Egyptian Art, it was 23 of Greek and Roman, where in open-storage Galleries 170-172 it was again the smaller things that caught my eye—a little box of Etruscan gold from the fifth through third century B.C., and bits of Roman glass.
After eight of Medieval, 11 of Arms and Armor, and 56 of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts, I reached the nine galleries of the Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas. Housed in the Met’s Michael C. Rockefeller Wing, this spectacular but regrettably condensed selection ranges across a wide swath of world culture. Gallery 354, Melanesia, contains a poignant reminder of the power of art in its collection of “bis poles,” memorial sculptures of the Asmat people of southwest New Guinea. In 1961 the young anthropologist for whom this wing is named died by possibly falling victim to the cannibalistic rituals that surrounded these intricately expressive works.
I chose not to share this last observation as I joined my wife for lunch at the nearby Petrie Court Café, content with my progress but mindful that two thirds of the museum remained. It was 1 p.m., and the restaurant is off another favorite space, Gallery 548, European Sculpture, 1700-1900. This dappled, light-filled atrium of large sculptural work preserves what was once the main entrance to the museum, which in the late 1880s faced south into Central Park.
After lunch I restarted with 13 rooms of the Robert Lehman Collection—that odd 1975 appendage to the museum plan that displays some of the late financier’s Old Master collection as it appeared in his New York apartment. Finally it was on to the 74 galleries of the American Wing.
This begins with Gallery 700, the Charles Engelhard Court, the large, glassed-in atrium on the museum’s Central Park side where the museum displays some of its large-scale American sculptures. The collection galleries are fronted by the Neoclassical facade of the Branch Bank of the U.S., at one time on Wall Street.
The period rooms here have always been, for me, among the museum’s most transporting and inviting displays. The Met has 12 in the American Wing, ranging in time from the Colonial era Hart room to a Prairie-style Frank Lloyd Wright living room. They are spread over three levels: the first floor, an intermediary level (2a) between a mezzanine and the second-floor paintings galleries, and a small, third-floor redoubt. A small elevator connects all levels, and it is an indication of the M.C. Escher-like spatial ingenuity required to fit everything that the ascent from mezzanine to level 2a is only about three feet.
Period rooms aside, the American Wing’s greatest diversion was Gallery 774, the Luce Center Visible Storage on the mezzanine, the treasure house’s attic filled with thousands of works of American fine and decorative art. With every piece of Americana you could imagine organized in rows by type, floor to ceiling, the Luce Center is like a fantasy tag sale. I walked down every encased aisle, thinking about all the paintings that didn’t make it onto the gallery walls, and how much fun it must have been arranging the decorative objects by color to create a rainbow display.
After the American Wing’s mezzanine, it was up to the second floor, where my track took me through the wing’s painting galleries, then over to four of Musical Instruments and 53 of Asian Art. Here, since childhood, I have sought out the tranquility of Gallery 217, the Chinese Courtyard in the Style of the Ming Dynasty, also known as the Astor Court. A new discovery was Gallery 219, the Chinese Treasury, one of a small cluster of galleries in a remote third-floor corner of the Asian Art section. The treasury contains intimate works of the late Ming and Qing dynasties in such materials as jade, porcelain, amber, ivory, and rhinoceros horn, including an unforgettable wall of snuff bottles.
Then it was on to the seven galleries of Ancient Near Eastern Art and four more of Greek and Roman Art. After that, there remained the 15 galleries of Islamic Art, 72 of European Paintings, three of Photographs, four of Drawings and Prints, and on out through some 30 of Modern and Contemporary Art.
The second remains the more frequented floor, with the greatest density around the Van Goghs of Gallery 823. Yet for all of the six-million-plus visitors who now pass through this museum every year, there are many quiet oases. This means that Gallery 632, a room of Vermeers that might otherwise be swamped if included elsewhere in some blockbuster exhibition, I could enjoy in near solitude.
I reached my last room at 6 p.m. It was another favorite, Thomas Hart Benton’s 1930-31 mural “America Today,” in Gallery 909. Hung to re-create the original installation in the boardroom of the New School for Social Research in Greenwich Village, Benton’s intense vision of America’s laborers, public life and technologically advanced “instruments of power” felt like a window onto the public works and private virtues that created this unique American institution.
By the end I had walked 20,000 paces, or about 10 miles, seen thousands of artworks, and passed through more than a dozen wings—the various stages of the Met’s growth since its founding.
The journey had taken seven hours—about a minute a room. Was this an ideal way to see the museum? Probably not. But I was amazed at how transporting this approach could be, and at just what drew me in. Despite all my previous visits, so many of the galleries and objects I’d never seen until now. Who knew there was a center for textiles (off of Gallery 599) beneath the Medieval Hall?
What had I learned? First, that more begets more. Any notion I had of fully taking the Met’s measure by visiting every gallery fell to the realization of all the newly discovered objects and galleries that I now wanted to revisit.
More broadly, for all of the different forms of art on view, what becomes apparent is not that they demonstrate an evolution of style or a run of greatest hits. Rather, they collectively reveal what the 19th-century Viennese art historian Alois Riegl called theKunstwollen—a continual “will to art” that cuts across all times, cultures and media.
And finally, for all of its grandeur, the Met still feels like a home away from home and a shelter from the world outside. Here is an art museum named not for a single founder but for the full metropolis that created it—and, therefore, a museum that has always been, from top to bottom, a treasury of the world and a reflection of ourselves.