Over the coming weeks I will be posting reflections on my trip to New York City in May. I was fortunate enough to have support from the College of Graduate Studies and the Public History Program at Middle Tennessee State University to spend a week in the Big Apple visiting museums and professionals in the city who have similar research interests.
I visited the Jewish Museum, Museum of Modern Art, the Tenement Museum, and the Transit Museum. I also met with an educator from the Intrepid who specializes in accessible education programs, and I visited with the President of the Board at Coney Island. In my limited free time I also visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art and experienced the greatest and most diverse city in this county. Needless to say, I had a wonderful time and learned more than I could imagine. This trip really helped to kick-start my dissertation research.
The first experience I want to share is my visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In my mind I built up this great museum that has set precedence for museums around the world and stood as a pillar in the ancient art sector. As I rode the subway north to the Museum Mile, I was excited to see Greek vases, Roman statues, and the Egyptian collection that I had longed to see in person since watching When Harry Met Sally. I walked up the stone steps towards the Greco-Roman façade of the building with hopes and dreams of what I was about to experience.
Once inside, I realized this was not going to go quite as well as I had planned. I walked through the hall with Greek and Roman artifacts that I had studied in the past and seen in books and on documentaries. At first I was thrilled to see these objects; black and red pottery from Ancient Greece, a Roman sarcophagus, and even the recreation of a bedroom in a Roman villa. As I continued on throughout the museum, a sense of disappointment began to grow within me. By the time I made it to the Egyptian section I was trying to force myself to have a good time and enjoy the museum.
As I ventured through the Egypt exhibits, I had several thoughts. First of all, the exhibit opens with the mastaba of Perneb, which is an offering chapel from the Old Kingdom. Of course it is thrilling to walk through this building that dates from around 2450 BCE; however it also felt really weird to have this building inside a museum in New York City, thousands of miles from its original home. This goes back to the unanswerable question of having objects in museums that are not in the context that they were originally. Obviously I’m excited that so many people get to see this chapel and experience walking through it that might not otherwise have the chance to go to Egypt, but it still felt wrong to have it in a place so far removed from the Old Kingdom in Egypt. I had similar feelings in the Sackler Wing with the Temple of Dendur. For one thing, the water wasn’t running, so my illusion of Harry and Sally meeting in the Met was ruined. Also, how many of those grubby handed children were touching the walls of the temple? Granted, the temple would have been under Lake Nasser after the construction of the Aswan Dam. Somehow, it still felt wrong to me.
Another glaring problem for me was that there were so many statues, works of art, stelae, and more, but nothing was historically interpreted or explained to the extent I would have wanted. This is something that I have always seen as a major reason that I have a problem with art museums. I know that interpretation isn’t their area of focus necessarily, but it is still disturbing to me. This lack of explanation just makes me think that it is no wonder people aren’t very interested in ancient history. I have posted about this problem before, and the problem has yet to cease irritating me. The presentation of ancient history in art museums is not personal or exciting. When a jar is placed on a shelf and the date, material, and accession number is on a tag, people are less likely to want to go home and learn more about that wavy line red ware black line pottery fragment. Why is it important? What does it signify? What can we find out about the person who owned that piece of pottery for? What did they use it for? What did it mean to them? Perhaps gallery guides and educators address these issues more, but will the average person walking into the museum go on one of these tours?
Perhaps some of my issues with the Met also go back to the pre-John Cotton Dana idea of museums as elite, gargantuan, foreboding structures that are not open to everyone in society. The outside of the Met definitely conveys the feeling of an “old world museum” and perhaps that is where my trepidation began. Dana believed that libraries and museums should be, “vibrant community centers instead of collections of relics that only appealed to a small segment of the community.” What would he think about the Met today? More information on “The Gloom of the Museum” is available for free on Google books by clicking this link.
On a much more positive note, I very much enjoyed the American art sections which is something in the past I have never particularly enjoyed. American history, American art, American literature, and more have never been my favorite things to study. However, seeing Washington Crossing the Delaware in all of its gigantic beauty after always seeing it in grade school textbooks was something I will remember. Perhaps it is because I had a more personal connection and history with that piece. The works of Thomas Cole were also impressive to me, and I very much enjoyed studying the nuances of his work and thinking about the encroachment of Americans into the west with “Manifest Destiny”. I also liked the armor and weapons wing, and I especially enjoyed seeing Henry VIII’s field armor.
There are many factors that could have played into my overall dissatisfaction with the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Perhaps I had not had enough coffee, maybe I was somehow expecting a history museum instead of Art museum (but – duh museum of ART). Unavoidable obstacles also stood in the way of my expected pilgrimage to the great museum. There were crowds, there was also some construction going on throughout the museum that meant wings were closed, objects were moved, and things weren’t quite as “pretty” as they usually were. Another thing that could not be avoided was that many artifacts in the Egyptian collection were in a different exhibit way across the museum, which made it hard to experience the entire exhibit.
But the fact remains that my experience at the Met was not an overall positive one, and I might not visit again. Next time I am in New York, perhaps I will better prepare myself before visiting if I do decide to return to the Met.
My friends who are art professors were horrified by my proclamations that I did not enjoy the Met, however many friends in public history or museum studies understood my feelings. Have any of you had great or terrible experiences with the Met? What would you change or not?
Images from my visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: