How the Met Was Made

Talk about a spoiled birthday. For years leading up to its 150th anniversary the Metropolitan Museum of Art had been planning a swell of celebratory programming: an overhaul of its British Galleries, debuts of major gifts of photography and drawing, new cross-cultural displays, an international symposium on collecting, a Great Hall photo op with the mayor and a big cake.

At the center of this Busby Berkeley-scaled jubilee was to be “Making the Met,” an exhibition mapping the growth and transformations of the museum’s collection. You know the rest: Days before the show’s planned opening, the coronavirus pandemic forced this museum and every other in New York to shut down, and turned the Met’s sesquicentennial into an annus horribilis.

Michelangelo drawings mingle with Egyptian statuary. Burmese harps sit beside Flemish lace. The show’s horn-blowing prologue, where van Gogh and Rodin appear with a nail-studded Mangaaka power figure from the Kongo kingdom and a Richard Avedon photograph of Marilyn Monroe, testifies to the unparalleled strength and breadth of the Met’s collection, first modeled after European museums and now outclassing them.

For visitors returning after five months, the catholicity of these galleries will be a treat. Here is a legends-only mini-Met, which can be appreciated on the surface as a supersaturated treasure house. But in its structure, “Making the Met” is all about the ambitions and blind spots of an institution — and the changing schemes of meaning, value and interpretation that form an invisible frame around all the world’s beauty.

Those ambitions began in 1866, in a flush of American optimism after the end of the Civil War, and came to fruition four years later with the acquisition of a Roman sarcophagus. The early Met, like the nearly contemporaneous art museums of Philadelphia, Boston and Chicago, scored rather higher on aspiration than connoisseurship.

One gallery focuses on the Met’s deep study collections of textiles, works on paper, and musical instruments, established in the early 20th century. Another zeros in on antiquities acquired through museum-financed archaeological digs of the 1920s and ’30s, when the Met would divvy up discoveries with host countries under a now obsolete legal principle called “partage.” A commanding seated statue of the female pharaoh Hatshepsut, unearthed in Egypt in 1927-28, entered the Met in this way, or at least her head and left arm did; the museum only pieced her body back together later after finding the other bits in Berlin.

The transformative Impressionist gifts of the Havemeyer family (whose fortunes, a text here acknowledges, were made in the brutal sugar trade) take over nearly a whole gallery in this show. Manet’s fearlessly blunt “Dead Christ With Angels” (1864) — a Havemeyer gift in which the sallow Jesus, hovering between life and death, looms in a depthless cave — remains one of the most staggering paintings in the whole museum. Here it functions almost as an emergency brake, appearing with Courbet’s lusty “Woman With a Parrot” (1866) and one of Monet’s first plein-air riverscapes, “La Grenouillère” (1869), but also with Havemeyer donations like opalescent Tiffany vases and an impression of Hokusai’s “The Great Wave,” circa 1830-32.

During World War II, several museum officials joined the effort to save, catalog and restitute art looted by the Nazis. These “Monuments Men” — and several women — included James J. Rorimer, the director of the Cloisters (and later the entire Met), whose notebook here is open to an inventory of loot he found in Neuschwanstein Castle in 1945; and Edith A. Standen, a tapestries curator and decorated military officer, who oversaw the restitution of thousands of artworks to Berlin’s state museums. She’s represented here by her stiff wool military uniform, now part of the Costume Institute.

The conclusion is somewhat baggy, but for a show about collecting that may be the point. For the Met’s primary challenge in 2020 is not what to buy. It’s how to show it, and whether a 150-year-old museum can remain nimble enough to forge new practices of research, interpretation and display.

It’s easy to identify gaps in a supposedly “universal” collection, and very easy to post anachronic judgments of what your predecessors ignored. Harder and more important is to engage with the deep structure of collecting: to understand what we value most, and how, and why, as the museum tries to chart a path from Eurocentricity to a real universalism. The Met’s holdings have globalized, to be sure. And they’re not implicated quite as directly in colonial violence as the loot-filled ethnographic museums of Western Europe. Still, if the Met’s “development,” as Mr. Hollein himself says, is “connected with a logic of what is defined as white supremacy,” then what exactly is to be celebrated at this anniversary party?

The answer, Ms. Bayer and her team affirm in “Making the Met,” lies inside the beautiful objects themselves, in the layers of history that have accreted in the last century and a half. These works, having traveled to New York from all corners, bear memories of encounters, scars of violence, new names, new prices. They’ve been transformed as they’ve moved, and so they’re ideally positioned to map the intersections and interdependence of our histories.

But to articulate that interdependence you need to do more than fill gaps in a purportedly universal collection. You need a new “relational ethics,” in the words of the French art historian Bénédicte Savoy and the Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr, authors of the groundbreaking 2018 report on the restitution of African art. Relational ethics means recognizing that what the museum once called “universal” was one specific worldview — not to be scrapped wholesale, but to be absorbed into a global network of other tactics, other approaches, other voices.

Relational ethics means treating objects of the collection not as static objects of beauty, but vectors whose meanings and values change as they circulate among peoples — as the Met did in “Interwoven Globe,” its unbelievably intelligent textile exhibition of 2013. It means opening new circuits of research and collaboration that stretch well past 1000 Fifth Avenue — as the Met has done in its current knockout show “Sahel,” whose curators worked with colleagues in Senegal and Niger. Relational ethics means something much deeper than a box-ticking exercise; it means elaborating the humanism that the Met supposedly stands for to its fullest, most global extent.

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