In 1870, the Metropolitan Museum of Art was just being founded. From the onset, the organization had in mind goals for their permanent home, including this almost humorous requirement for the structure: "a building spacious in its dimensions, and thoroughly fireproof (Heckscher 5)." A year later, a commentator for Appleton's Journal of Literature and Science outlines a similar, albeit slightly more eloquent, ideal:
"[The museum is] designed so as to employ the hands of coming generations, and large enough to house all that is necessary for the illustration of the brief life of the fleeting generations of men-- must, in a word, be comprehensive, and it must be imposing, The entrance and corridors must be a worthy counterpart to the lofty aisles of our pine-forests, its halls capable of housing the Assyrian kings and the Egyptian sphinx, and the paintings of the great masters, new and old (80)."
As we look at the "finished" building now, it would seem to have lived up to the 1870s expectations, even if it took 125 years to do it.
Only somewhat altered from the original configuration (1898-1902), the Great Hall is described as R.M. Hunt's 'most ambitious' Beaux-Arts design. Replacing the south facade of Weston's addition as the main entrance to the museum, the three-domed, stoically Classical scheme rationally organizes the museum patron's first impressions of the building. Like the crossing of a church, the central dome marks the intersection of the Great Stair, which leads up to the painting galleries in the old building, and introduces the galleries to the north and south. The McKim, Mead and White additions enlarged these end galleries into large wings which today house Greek and Egyptian art.
The Hall is a space which is conducive to just being in. There is no art displayed in the Hall; it serves as the gateway to the rest of the building. The feeling is one of being surrounded on all sides with high Culture; the Beaux-Arts architecture offers the "best" building that Western culture can offer. This is most sublimely illustrated on Friday nights, when the lights are low and the chamber music floats from the balcony above.
Unfortunately, the nature of the ground plan, the "master plan," even in its most current incarnation, still seems to conform to a nineteenth-century paradigm: the arts of the great ancient civilizations flank the entrance and Great Hall, and the grand staircase that bisects the central axis of the building leads to European painting. The arts of Asia are tucked away above Egypt; the Rockefeller Wing, focusing on the Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas, hides behind the cafeteria.
Despite having fine examples of many artistic traditions around the globe, the Met still retains a high degree of Western bias, a stance that, for all their efforts , is still ingrained in the architecture. Of course, the museum was founded to show classical sculpture and European painting, so it is no surprise that these galleries are the central features of the plan. While I suppose it is going a bit far to scold them for this, the case of the two collections that flank the Great Hall show two relatively contemporary installations (both spaces were remodeled in the last half of the twentieth century) that are radically different from each other, with one being far superior.
Starting to the north, the current configuration of the Met's Egyptian galleries comes from Brown, Lawford and Forbes (1967-68). The addition for the Temple of Dendur was designed by Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates in 1978.
As presented today, the installation is frankly boring, with simple (bare) room after simple room wandering around the north end of the building. With the exception of the magnificent installation of the Temple of Dendur, the remaining galleries are like a great dark maze, each room just a square or rectangle of unadorned gray walls and poorly focused lighting.
Objects are presented in a startlingly matter-of-fact manner. Study galleries, shoved off to the side of the main thoroughfares, pack hundreds of smaller objects into cases, almost devoid of labels. Overall, the Egyptian galleries have the feel of a natural history museum-- the techniques of design for ethnographic collections are used throughout: organization simply by period (dynasty) and gallery labels that focus on Egyptian history and culture and massing many objects together.
The Egyptian galleries look like the "study halls" suggested by Gillman (in 1906!), that is: "the collections stored compactly, [with] the arrangement chronological." Of course, he was advocating that these study collections were separated from the public galleries, which should be designed to be more selective (422). The absence of such galleries makes this presentation all the more unfortunate; the goal seems to be to emphasize the breadth of the collection, but it only forces the casual viewer to fend for themselves in a vast sea of objects. It's as if they can't decide what's important, so they just show everything they have.
In this case, it seems that the museum planners have tried to focus on providing a collection conducive to research-- the pieces are organized and there are certainly a lot of works out on the floor. Of course, we should give them a certain amount of credit for this, but it's hard to expect the general public to swallow so much information at once.
Turning to the south, the Greek galleries provide a stark contrast. The original wings J and K were designed by McKim, Mead and White as part of their turn-of-the- century master plan, but were not opened to the public until 1917. They have been recently renovated and restored to the original design.
Lofty spaces flooded with light characterize the Greek galleries. The axis of the Great Hall leads the viewer to the south. One can look from the center of the hall down the corridor of the Greek galleries all the way to the end of the building, now marked with the top third of a huge Ionic column. This quality of having a vista is absent from the Egyptian wing: on the north side of the Great Hall, the view is blocked by a reconstructed temple in the first gallery.
The Greek galleries are easy to navigate, pristine and invite contemplation and general hanging around. Almost involuntarily, I found myself stopping in the main gallery to sit on a bench and make some photographs. These rooms follow a more "aesthetic" design scheme, organized for "the contemplation of beautiful objects (Nation 422)." To be truthful, I don't think I've ever bothered to stop and read a gallery label.
The lessons taught by these galleries are more in line with the 1870s view that the art museum is supposed to teach the common worker about good taste and culture. The galleries and the works contained in them are balanced in a harmonious relationship; the pieces are shown in a more "native" environment than the antiseptic, fluorescent storerooms for Egypt, and as such can be understood in a more general and aesthetic way; that is, art as opposed to historical record.
In this light, I have to give the Metropolitan a mixed review. While in these installations the educational aspect of the art museum is treated basically equally, through the use of gallery labels, audioguides, etc., the architectural framework is severely lacking in the Egyptian galleries. The design makes the objects look out of place, and makes the installation itself awkward when compared to the seamlessly integrated Great Hall/Greek gallery wing. It is obvious that great care was taken to present the Classical artifacts in an architecturally appropriate setting (of course, what a great coincidence that the rest of the building looks the same); why couldn't the same have been done when installing the artifacts from Egypt?
Even so, the design works fairly well for what they've had to deal with over the last century and a quarter, however, there is always room for improvement.
As a footnote, I have to mention a fantastic new addition to the physical space of the Met. Underneath the Hunt staircase there is installed a new gallery which focuses on art of the Egyptian Byzantine. I couldn't tell you what exactly that is, or about any of the pieces shown, because the absolutely fantastic location overshadows any art they have displayed. Like admiring the Vaux and Mould facade now enclosed by the Lehman Collection or standing in the middle of the Medieval sculpture hall and trying to imagine what it looked like filled with casts of classical sculpture, this new "excavation" made my latest trip entertaining... wandering around totally ignoring the art contained and focusing on the building was really a good time.
_____. "Museums as a Means of Popular Instruction," Appleton's Journal of Literature and Science, January 15, 1870, pp.80-81.
_____. "A Selective Art Museum," The Nation,Vol. 82, No. 2134, May 24, 1906, pp. 422-23.
Heckscher, Morrison H. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: An Architectural History, MMA, 1995.