NY Museums: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

NY Museums: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

This is part of a series on New York City museums. For the other posts, see below:


In a city full of famous art museums, the Metropolitan is undoubtedly the queen. The institution is a behemoth. With a collection containing millions of objects—objects which come from every corner of the world, from ancient times to the present day—the museum has nary a rival in the world for range. And the objects comprising this encyclopedic collection are, inevitably, of the finest quality that money can buy. By now I have seen enough of the great European museums to say confidently that the Met can compete with any of them.

The museum was conceived as a kind of sister institution to the American Museum of Natural History. It was an age when the rich and educated sought to “civilize” the less privileged. Both museums are located near Central Park, a place which itself was designed as a civilizing project—a kind of pastoral refuge from the ills of city life, where the people could learn to appreciate more refined recreational activities: Sunday strolls, picnics, birdwatching, and so on. The Museum of Natural History would bring the light of knowledge to the uneducated, while the Met would show the unsophisticated the value of high art.

The museum’s founders were embarking on a pathbreaking project. There were already plenty of examples of great European museums to learn from. But what would an American art museum be like? When the museum opened in 1872, its collection was modest. Indeed, many of the works it displayed were either prints or reproductions of famous European works. Yet this quickly changed. New York was emerging as the financial capital of the world. Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and J.P. Morgan were among the city’s residents. Since Europe was still considered the cultural epicenter of the West, these newly-minted super-rich naturally spent their piles of gold in buying up as much European artwork as they could.

The Metropolitan benefited immensely from this confluence of money and ostentatious display. Not only did the museum itself have the budget to purchase high-quality works, but it also increased its collection from gifts and bequests. After all, donating beautiful art to a public museum is a good way to demonstrate wealth and civic-mindedness at once. We ought not to criticize, however. There are times when the vanities of the world manage to produce genuine treasures. And the Met is certainly such a treasure.

At present, the museum’s holdings are so vast and varied that no single person, however knowledgeable, could hope to do justice to it all. It would take a team of professional art historians working for years on end to complete even a basic catalogue of the museum’s works, much less an appreciation along aesthetic grounds. And I am no art historian. So in this post I hope only to give you a superficial tour through this enormous institution. (Much of the information and many of the images come from the Met’s website, which is quite well-made. The people at the museum have done the world a service by publishing high-quality public domain images of their collection.)

We begin at the entrance on Fifth Avenue. The museum is difficult to miss. The building stretches out along several city blocks. Fountains shoot and sprinkle outside, and the sidewalk is always thick with crowds. The building is neoclassical in form, its façade a kind of pale white decorated in a pseudo-Roman style. The steps leading up to the main entrance, lined with imposing double columns, are one of the most iconic spots in New York. There are always food stands parked right below these steps, and usually a street performer—a dancing saxophonist, perhaps—plays for the amusement of those sitting on the steps. 

We enter the building, and are faced with a choice: right or left. There are ticket stands on either side. To the left there is a graceful Greek statue of woman, and to the right a stiff Egyptian man seated on a throne. These statues are informative, since the respective galleries for these cultures are located in these directions. For the purpose of getting a ticket, the choice is immaterial: the lines on either side are normally about the same, and usually move pretty quickly.

Now, there was recently a significant change in the museum’s admissions policy. For the past few decades, visitors could pay any amount they liked. Just last year, however, the museum changed its recommended prices to mandatory payments—for everyone except residents of New York State, that is. (Lucky for me, I am still a resident.) Another change, by the way, was the switch from using metal clips to using stickers to identify visitors. I am sure that the Metropolitan has increased its budget by making these changes. But I admit I miss the old, pay-as-you-wish, metal clip Metropolitan. A man from China could pay a dollar, and leave with a nice little keepsake from his visit. I still have some of the old clips in my room. 

Anyways, let us now enter the museum proper. I like to begin with the Egyptian section, not just because it is near the entrance, but also because it represents the chronological beginning of the museum’s collection. Here we can ground ourselves in one of the world’s oldest civilizations before we examine anything else.

The Egyptian section is massive and labyrinthine. Unlike the other departments of the museum, the Egyptian department displays everything in its collection—almost 30,000 objects. To make room for all of this, the halls double around one another, making it sometimes confusing to navigate the collection. But it is a worthwhile use of one’s time to get lost in the art. If you proceed carefully through the department, you can take a very satisfying chronological journey: beginning near the entrance, in prehistoric Egypt, and ending up in the same spot, having gone through the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms, and finishing in the Roman era. 

Now, I love this department, because it has everything. Walking through it, the visitor gets a very complete picture of life in this ancient civilization. Of course there are sarcophagi and mummies, along with amulets, jewelry, and ceramics. Among the most famous of the smaller pieces in the museum is William the Hippopotamus, a beautiful figurine made of faience, which is a ceramic type specific to Egypt. It has a radiant blue color that is delightful to look at.

The museum also has a wealth of larger statues, ranging from the size of a child to the size of a giant. For me, the most beautiful of these is a statue of the pharaoh Hatshepsut. As you may know, Hatshepsut was the only woman to officially become the pharaoh. This presented a challenge for Egyptian artists. The art of Ancient Egypt is distinguished for its astonishing conservatism, preserving the same stylistic features through centuries. A single glance is all we need to know that something is Egyptian. But portraying a woman required innovation, and the artists rose to the challenge. Rather than making her appear masculine, as they did in other works, in this seated statue Hatshepsut appears both feminine and even feline. There is a smooth grace and delicacy to the sculpture which is rare in the usually rigid forms of Egyptian art, and I find it enchanting.

Though not, perhaps, especially beautiful, some of the most illuminating artifacts on displays are sets of models. Made around 1900 BCE, the models were found in the 1930s in a tomb in the Memphite region of Egypt. They show us rare scenes of daily life in Egypt. We can see several boats travelling along the Nile, one of them transporting a mummy, another for hunting. There are also models of more cotidian scenes: a granary, a garden, a house. These models are wonderful little things, since it is as if they were made by the Egyptians for a museum exhibit about Egypt. It is difficult to identify with the people who sculpted enormous statues of god kings, but very easy to see oneself gardening.

The centerpiece of the collection is the Temple of Dendur. The Met actually has large sections of several temples in its collection, from different periods of Egypt’s history, but this is the only complete, free-standing temple in the museum. It is in the center of a large room, surrounded by a little water moat where visitors like to throw coins. Statues of crocodiles and lion-headed gods surround the space. The temple itself is of a fairly modest size, and is from the end of Egyptian civilization. It was built after the conquest of Egypt by the Romans, and commissioned by Augustus himself. While the temple is a lovely work of architecture, what most stuck in my memory were the many graffiti carved into the walls.

When you complete your circuit through the Egyptian section, you will be where you began, right by the entrance. From there, I like to go across the hall and then into the section on Ancient Greece. This part of the museum looks very different. Whereas the Egyptian section is twisting and jam-packed, the Greek section is open and clear. The visitor enters a large hall with a vaulted roof. Free-standing statues are scattered through the space, while friezes line the walls. For any lovers of classical art—with its flowing robes, idealized forms, and restrained emotion—there are dozens of works to admire. While I greatly enjoy the statues, I find myself even more interested in the friezes. Some of these come from Athenian tombs, such as a touching portrayal of a little girl cradling a dove.

The collection contains many excellent examples of art from Classical Athens—art that we readily identify as quintessentially Greek. Besides the statues and freizes, there are many examples of Greek vase art. But the collection also contains works that do not fit this description. Among these are the many sculptures from pre-Classical Greece, which to our eyes can seem more Egyptian than anything. The museum has an excellent example of one of these kouroi: A young man, standing with one foot extended forward. I like the work, since it is an interesting example of a midpoint between Egyptian stylization and Greek realism. The young man is manifestly unreal, and yet the musculature in his limbs and torso is well done. An even older work—from around 750 BCE—is a terracotta vase. Its decoration is very much unlike the red, white, and black images of gods and heroes we normally associate with Greece. Rather, it is covered in a thick pattern of geometrical shapes and tiny like stick-like figures. I quite like it.

The collection of Roman art is perhaps even better than that devoted to Greece. There are several excellent busts of Roman Emperors. I have a long, personal attachment to a bust of Marcus Aurelius in the collection, which to me is the perfect image of a philosopher—calm, wise, detached. I use it as my own symbol now. A much more amusing work is a statue of Trebonianus Gallus. It is a rare example in the Met of art gone wrong. Clearly, whoever made it was not a master. The whole figure is awkward, with a bulging stomach and a head that is manifestly too small. Maybe Rome was not doing so well in the year 250 CE, when it was made.

Statues, being made of metal or rock, naturally preserve very well. But painting is another story. Even though the Greeks had a developed tradition of painting, nothing has survived the ravages of time. That is not the case for Rome, from which we have many well-preserved wall paintings. The Met has an entire room, the bedroom of P. Fannius Synistor, which was buried in the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE. The art on the walls is really wonderful, showing several architectural and natural scenes. It shows us how the Romans gave a realistic impression of space without using the technique of perspective. Having seen my fair share of Roman wall frescoes and mosaic floors, I must say that they had wonderful taste in interior decoration.

As you can see from this example and the Egyptian temple, the Met is big on re-creating interiors. This is a theme throughout the whole institution. I think this is one of the greatest things that set the museum apart from its rivals. The visitor is allowed to walk into history.

Before moving on to the next department, I want to mention the wonderful collection of Etruscan art (from Italy before the Roman period) on the balcony above the Roman section. One of the most outstanding pieces in this section is a bronze chariot from around 550 BCE. Having a preserved chariot is quite rare, so it is a treat to be able to see one so exquisitely decorated.

The Greek and Roman section leads direction to the collection of art from Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. Of course, one can tell at a glance that this grouping is a kind of mishmash of art from non-Western cultures, which in previous days was called “primitive.” In reality the arts of these three continents have nothing to do with each other; and, of course, the amount of geographical space supposedly represented in these galleries is incomparably more vast than that of Greco-Roman or Egyptian art. That being said, at least the Metropolitan has a fine collection of art from these parts of the world, which are too often ignored.

For my part, it is a great refreshment to go from the world of Greece and Rome to this gallery. Our culture has so internalized those classical forms that they charm us more for their “perfections” than for any surprises they contain. Thus it is a pleasure to sample some of the other great visual cultures from around the world, which really do contain surprises for Western eyes.

The grand hall of the collection (gallery 354) is one of the most spectacular in the museum. From the ceiling hangs an enormous collection of shields from Oceania, arranged into a kind of meta-shield formation. I am always reminded, incongruously, of a spaceship. Large sculptures fill the space below the shields. There are some slit gongs from the island of Vanuatu, which double as huge musical instruments and works of visual art. There are funerary sculptures from Papua New Guinea; called malaga carvings, they are beautiful and highly intricate wooden carvings meant to be used only temporarily to celebrate the dead, and then disposed of. (This certainly goes against the grain of Western thinking, wherein we want our art to be eternal.) The bis poles of the Asmata people, another culture in New Guinea, are used for a similar purpose, and are also beautifully carved and then disposed of.

The adjacent section on African art is equally captivating. During my last visit I was particularly attracted to a small wooden carving of a man, called a Power Figure, made by the Kongo peoples. Bent forward slightly, standing with arms akimbo, the statue has a real intensity when seen in person—the exaggerated form only magnified by the many steel nails emanating from the man’s body. More famous is the Benin ivory mask, a real masterpiece, made by the Edo people of Nigeria—one of the great pre-colonial states in sub-saharan Africa. The mask, which represents a powerful queen mother, is clearly the work of experts working within a vibrant tradition. The mask has an elegance and a graceful polish that make it very satisfying on the eye: each detail is finely crafted, and yet they all work together to make a perfect form.

During my last visit, I was especially interested in the section on pre-colonial American art, since I had just finished listening to an audio course on the peoples of North America. I was delighted to find beautiful examples of geometric pottery from the Ancestral Pueblo culture (fascinating to compare to the geometrical designs from pre-Classical Greece). Among the many sculptures on display, one of the most iconic is a ceramic baby from the Olmec culture, made around 1,000 BCE. It is a wonderful piece, surprisingly lifelike despite its stylized face. The folds of fat and the hand placed idly in the mouth serve to make this sculpture a far more realistic depiction of babyhood than the many portraits of the infant Jesus made over 2,000 years later in medieval Europe. 

Moving on in our rapid tour, we come next to the museum’s Department of Modern and Contemporary art. The very fact that the Met has this department is a testament to its uniqueness. I can think of no other museum in the world that has significant holdings of ancient and non-Western art as well as “modern” art. But the Met is devoted to a vision of total universality—the art world’s equivalent of the Museum of Natural History—and so has it all.

The collection as the Met is almost as impressive as that in the MoMA—and that is saying a lot. Though there are so many great works on display, I will restrict myself to mentioning my favorite painting, which is also perhaps the most famous painting in the whole collection: Pablo Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude Stein.

It is an extraordinary portrait, arguably the greatest of the previous century. The painting is revolutionary. Gertrude Stein sits in a kind of abstract, unfinished space. She is not surrounded by her papers and books, but instead sits alone. While previous portraits in European art showed us the heroic and cultured male, handsome and lithe, Stein is hunched-over, short, and tick. Yet her body—mostly concealed under her heavy clothes—has a kind of elemental power on the canvass, even a monumental grandeur. But her face is what attracts the most attention. Rather than faithfully reproducing Stein, Picasso turns her face into a kind of mask. Thus her eyes and nose do not obey the normal rules of perspective and anatomy. Ironically, though this technique necessarily makes Stein’s face blank and inexpressive, the result is a convincing representation of the writer’s presence, of her indomitable energy. There is a charming story that, when told that Stein did not look anything like this portrait, Picasso responded “She will.” He was right: this portrait has helped to define Stein’s image far more than photographs of her. 

I will also mention the largest work on display in this Department: America Today, a mural by Thomas Hart Benton. It consists of ten canvasses, and shows in visual form the America of the 1930s. The work was commissioned by the New School of Social Research—a kind of progressive think tank. I quite like the mural, as I do much of the public art created during the Great Depression and the New Deal. Looking at this work, one feels that we modern Americans were successfully creating our own visual language with which to decorate our public monuments—much like the Egyptians and the Greeks. The inclusion of this large mural is also keeping with the Met’s proclivity for immersive artistic experiences.

Next we come to the massive Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts. Once again, the Met excels when it comes to the re-creation of historical spaces. One of the most beautiful rooms in the Met is an entire patio taken from a Renaissance Spanish villa—the Castle of Veléz Blanco. Not only are the carvings on the arches and columns beautiful, but the space is filled with quite lovely statues of mythical, historical, and religious figures. Just as astounding is a study from the Ducal Palace of Gubbio. Every surface is covered in images made using the technique of wood inlay (intarsia, or marquestry), which consists of piecing together little bits of colored wood in order to make a complex image. The amount of time it must have taken to assemble a whole room this way is frankly stupefying. The result is an extraordinary work of immersive art, whose walls symbolize different areas of human activity. I am sure the room itself is a greater accomplishment than whatever happened inside it.

These two rooms only scratch the surface of the department’s holdings of decorative arts. There is everything one would expect to find in the homes of aristocrats and royalty, from elaborate coffee pots to ornate globes. I admit that, however fine these products are, they are generally less interesting to me than the sculptures.

Some of the museum’s best sculptures can be found in gallery 548, which takes the form of a large atrium. On one side of the space, you can even see the brick façade of the museum’s original building (which is mostly buried in the later constructions). There are two outstanding statues in this space. The first is Perseus with the Head of Medusa, by Antonio Canova. It is an extremely fine work of Neoclassicism, achieving the idealized grace of the Greeks and Romans. Simply as a composition, the statue works marvelously, with the gruesome head balanced by the peculiarly barbed sword, making a strong diagonal. The other great statue (in my opinion) is Ugolino and his Sons, by Jean-Baptise Carpeux. This depicts a story taken out of Dante of an Italian count who—along with his sons and grandsons—was imprisoned and starved to death. We see the count, driven almost to insanity through starvation and despair, surrounded by the tortured forms of his progeny.

Continuing on through the museum, the visitor will next reach the museum’s section of Medieval Art. Now, I feel justified in mostly passing over this department, since the bulk of the museum’s medieval art resides in the Cloisters Museum, uptown (an enchanting branch of the Met). Even so, it must be said that the central room of the Medieval Department is a beautiful space, with a high ceiling and high windows, like a cathedral. An ornate grill (from the Valladolid Cathedral, in Spain) stretches most of the way to the ceiling, and charming examples of sculptures, tapestries, and stained glass give the space a properly church-like atmosphere. This last time around I was particularly impressed with the museum’s small collection of Byzantine art.

From here it is appropriate to go straight to the Department of Arms and Armor. As you can imagine, this was my favorite section to visit when I was a young kid, and did much to fuel my youthful obsession with swords and guns. Even now, I admit I find this section extremely impressive, and I have never seen any collection of historical weapons even half as good. The presentation is excellent. The visitor enters a large hall, where medieval flags are hanging from the ceiling. A group of mounted knights ride through the center, while other armored knights stand guard all around the periphery. One feels that one has entered a jousting tournament.

The suits of armor are fascinating and, often, strangely beautiful. They are like abstract sculptures of human forms, or a kind of proto-machine with moving parts. Though you naturally would think that a metal suit would be extremely cumbersome, you can see innumerable little joints made into the armor, giving the wearers a surprising range of movement. The most beautiful of these many suits on display is that made for Emperor Ferdinand I (brother of Charles V). Every piece of metal is covered in ornate designs. Just as wonderful are the Japanese suits of armor on display. Rather than turning their wearers into metallic turtles, this armor is clearly designed for a different sort of fighting—one requiring more lightness and flexibility. The monstrous grimaces on the helmets would be genuinely terrifying if someone was coming at you wearing this.

Right next to this department is the American Wing. This is one of the areas where the Met is really untouchable. Other museums may have finer paintings or sculptures or what have you, but I do not think any museum has such a complete and rich collection of American art. Indeed, the American Wing could be cut off and moved to a different spot, and it would still be one of the finest museums in the country. Its collection is vast, and it is so wonderfully presented. The visitor enters an enormous courtyard full of benches and statues. The glass wall and roof flood the space with light, making the department a welcome relief from the dark medieval section. Bright, colorful stained glass, and an equally colorful fountain, line the walls; and a beautiful bronze statue of Diana, lightly resting on one foot, occupies the center.

The visitor enters the main collection through a kind of pseudo-façade, as if this is an entirely different building. And, indeed, the visitor suddenly finds herself thrown into a richly-furnished home. In keeping with the museum’s penchant for interior spaces, there are a great many recreations of American interiors from different points in the country’s history. Surely, we have not invented anything as close to time travel as this. Proceeding onward, the visitor next finds a strange sort of room. It is in the shape of a large oval, and on the walls there is an enormous painting of the palace and the gardens of Versaille. When standing in the center of the room, the curving panoramic does create a satisfying illusion of actually standing in France. Just as the study in the Ducal Palace of Gubbio, this painting (by John Vanderlyn) must have taken a nauseating amount of time.

I walked up the stairs, and then found myself in what is called “open storage.” These are the chairs, tables, paintings, lamps, and everything else that the museum has but did not have the space to use. So they hang here, in transparent cases. I recommend a visit to this, if only because it gives you an idea of the enormous amount of material any major museum must be holding in storage.

Proceeding onward, we come to the painting gallery. There are far too many excellent works to name. I was particularly happy to see a portrait of Alexander Hamilton and George Washington—both of which used to hang in Hamilton’s home, up in Harlem. More conspicuously, there is the iconic painting of Washington Crossing the Delaware—almost ludicrously heroic. I was also happy to find Frederic Edwin Church’s painting, In the Heart of the Andes. Church was inspired by the naturalist, Alexander von Humboldt, and included as much scientific detail as he could in this painting. Just as famous is John Singer Sargeant’s painting, Madame X, an intentionally risque (at the time) portrait of a society beauty (her real name was Madame Pierre Gautreau).

I was most delighted to learn that the museum has an entire room designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. I am no expert in the design of houses or in interior decoration, but I must say that it is both a welcoming and an animating space. It is easy to imagine myself reading a good novel within, while watching the snow fall out the windows. 

This completes our long circuit around the museum’s massive ground floor. If we continue on, we reach the Egyptian section again. So now let us return once again to the Great Hall, and then ascend the grand staircase to the museum’s first floor (or second floor, in America). 

Finally we come to the museum’s collection of European Paintings. Now, I must be careful here to avoid getting pulled into an endless catalogue of the museum’s excellent works. Like the American Wing, the Met’s Department of European Paintings could be a self-standing museum, and still be one of the best in the nation. Whether you like Dutch, Italian, French, or Spanish art, you will not leave the gallery disappointed (though German painting is fairly absent).

As you might expect, I am most interested in the Spanish paintings on display. The Met has excellent examples of the three great Spanish masters: Velázquez, El Greco, and Goya. The outstanding work of Velázquez is a portrait of Juan de Pareja, an enslaved man of African descent, which the artist executed in Italy. You will be pleased to hear that the great painter freed Juan de Pareja, who went on to become a skilled painter himself (there is a work of his hanging in the Prado). In any case, when you look at this painting, you do not see a man in bondage. To the contrary, Juan de Pareja appears almost regal with dignity. The painting is beautiful and startlingly realistic. To depict a man of African descent in such a way was a radical gesture on Velazquez’s part. 

Goya’s contribution is a portrait of Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zuñiga, a very young aristocrat. As usual with Goya, the figure has an odd stiffness, and the face is inexpressive. The viewer’s eye is naturally drawn to the scene at the boy’s feet, where two cats hungrily eye a magpie on a leash. This is a strangely morbid scene for a portrait of a youth, and it becomes all the more eerie when one considers that the boy died only a few years later, at the age of eight. El Greco’s outstanding work is his View of Toledo, the best of the artist’s few landscape paintings. As always, the artist’s signature style is immediately apparent: deep, rich colors combined with a dramatic verticality. This style is perfect for the city of Toledo—which is built on a hill overlooking a river, and filled with sharp towers. El Greco manages to imbue this wholly secular and inanimate scene with a burning spiritual intensity.

The number of excellent French painters in attendance dwarfs the representatives of any other nation. My personal favorite is Jacques Louis David. There is a charming portrait of the French chemist Antoine Lavoisier, who was executed during the French Revolution under false accusations. This is quite a historic loss, considering that Lavoisier is normally considered to be the father of modern chemistry. David’s more famous painting is his The Death of Socrates, a historical scene showing the great philosopher’s final moments. Socrates, who was very ugly and was quite old at the time, is shown as a partially nude Greek hero—with a muscular torso to boot. While I am not sure the painting captures the spirit of Plato’s dialogues, it is a brilliantly theatrical image.

On the subject of French painters, I must also mention The Love Letter, by Jean Honoré Fregonard, a delightfully coquettish image of a young woman receiving a note from her secret admirer. (I use this image in my blog’s newsletter.) I would love to keep going—since paintings speak to use in a modern language, easy for us to appreciate—but I will content myself with a short list of the artists in attendance: Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Vermeer, Ingres, Canaletto, Tiepollo, Turner, Klimt, Monet, Manet, Guaguin, Cézanne, Dürer, Memling, Rubens… Really even the list gets too long. The museum’s holdings of 19th century European paintings is so big, in fact, that the collection is held in a different section of the building.

To get there, you must pass a little hallway devoted to drawings, prints, and photographs. Now, you may be surprised to learn that, counted by individual works, this department is by far the biggest in the museum. But only a fraction of the drawings and prints in the museum’s holdings are on display at any given time. Sometimes they are taken out for special exhibitions, such as one on Michelangelo a few years ago. There, I got to see some of Michelangelo’s schematic drawings for fortresses, when he was briefly hired as a military engineer. Besides being innovative designs, the drawings themselves are beautiful works of abstract art.

Continuing on through the paintings of 19th and early 20th century Europe—where you can admire the great impressionists and post-impressionists—you get to the Department of Islamic Art. During my time in Spain I have come to admire Islamic art for its intricate designs, its geometrical sophistication, and its sense of divine calm. Wonderfully creative patterns decorate everything from tiles, to carpets, to pages of the Qur’an. As an example of the last, there is a stunning illuminated Qur’an from Turkey, whose decoration is just as intricate as the Book of Kells in Dublin.

Representational art is relatively uncommon in the Islamic world, as it is explicitly forbidden by the religion, but there are still some examples in the gallery. A particularly beautiful one is a tile panel from Iran, executed in a style that looks to my ignorant eye as if it could be Indian. A seductively posed woman is being courted by a man wearing a European hat. I wonder who made object, for whom, and where it would be placed, since it seems to so flagrantly flout the strictures of Islamic religion.

In keeping with the museum’s love of historical spaces, this section has the Damascus Room. This is a winter reception room from a palace in Damascus, Syria, made around the year 1700. It is a beautiful space. Shelves display ornate ceramics and the gilded covers of Qur’ans. Panels of lovely calligraphy (bearing messages from the Qur’an) and floral designs decorate the walls, and the floor is covered with geometrical tiles. The ceiling is perhaps the most stunning of all, composed of elaborate woodwork. It is such a sophisticated, elegant space; it must certainly have set the tone for any conversations which took place within. 

Next we come to the museum’s relatively small section on the Ancient Near East (Mesopotamia). For the most part these halls are filled with wonderful little objects from long ago, like cylinder seals, jewelry, incense burners, and small-scale statues. Among this last category is a small statue of Gudea, made around 2,000 BCE. It is a work of skilled craftsmanship, showing us a Sumerian king in a rather humble pose. His robe bears an inscription in cuneiform about his accomplishments (typical propaganda). What is striking is the thoughtfulness and even the humility of the king’s gaze and pose. He strikes us as more of a monk than a fearsome ruler. Another outstanding work is the bronze head of an unknown ruler, made between 2300 and 2000 BCE. Though not exactly realistic, I think this work is remarkable for the degree of individualization in the ruler’s features. We are not looking at a generic, stylized male head, but a particular man from 3,000 years ago.

But the real stars of this department are the lamassu: colossal sculptures of human-headed winged lions that flank the hallways. These were made in Assyria, around 850 BCE. Walking through this hallway, flanked by these mythical figures, feels like walking into the past. One detail I particularly like is that the creatures have five legs, as a result of a bit of illusionism. The front two legs are parallel, as if the creature is standing still; yet from the side, an extra leg is added (invisible from the front) to make it look as though the creature is mid-stride when seen from the side. The walls surrounding these stone guardians are covered with friezes in low relief, depicting other mythological scenes. For me, this Assyrian art is as lovely anything in the Egyptian section. 

You emerge from ancient times onto the balcony overlooking the Great Hall. Here you can walk across and enter into the Department of Asian Art. This is one of my favorite areas of the museum, partly because of the art itself, and partly for the way that this department is laid out. Clever planning makes the department seem much bigger than it actually is, and walking through it the first time feels like exploring an old palace or temple.

The viewer enters the department by walking into a grand gallery, filled with enormous works of Chinese Buddhist art. There are large stele, bearing inscriptions and carvings, and a huge sculpture of a Bodhisattva. This may, in fact, be the biggest statue in the museum. It is 13’9’’ tall (over 4 m) and must weigh thousands of pounds. It is also quite beautiful, with richly decorated robes. On the wall is an even bigger paintings of the Buddha of Medicine, seated among a large retinue. It is a magnificent way to enter Asia.

From this large hall, one can either further explore Chinese art, on the left, or enter the arts of India, on the right. For the sake of consistency, we can begin with China. The Met’s collection of Chinese Buddhist sculpture is the largest outside of Asia, and more examples can be seen in Gallery 208. There are so many lovely sculptures. One I particularly like is a ceramic sculpture of an Arhat (or a Luohan, as they are known in China), which is a person who has achieved an advanced state of enlightenment. The sculpture is lifesize; and the man’s tired and worn expression is extremely compelling. His robes are still brightly colored, even though this was made over 1,000 years ago. 

The Met also has a wonderful collection of Chinese drawings, calligraphy, pottery, and much else. But the most stunning room is the so-called Astor Court: a recreation of a Ming Dynasty-era courtyard. This is just another example of the stunning interiors from around the world collected at the Met. Finished in 1981, this installation was built by hand, using traditional methods; and besides being a beautiful work of art, it represented a landmark in cultural exchange between communist China and the United States. You enter through a round doorway guarded by two stone beasts (one is reminded of the lamassu in the Ancient Near East). Immediately you find yourself in a different world. A sheltered walkway surrounds a garden filled with oddly shaped rocks. These are called Taihu stones; they are formed via water erosion at the foot of a particular mountain in China (Dongting), and they are abstract sculptures in their own right.

At the end of the garden is a large room, designed to be used as a study, I believe. Unlike the great European interiors of the Met, this room does not appear at all ostentatious. Rather it is spare, restrained, and tasteful. As in the Damascus Room, it is impossible not to be awed by the high degree of sophistication and elegance of the room and the adjoining garden. I cannot but help imagining myself as a Ming Dynasty scholar, sitting in the garden and contemplating some intellectual puzzle. The space seems to invite contemplation.

Next we shall enter India and Southeast Asia. But before that, I ought to mention the Met’s small but delightful collection of Korean art. It is all in one room, Gallery 233, and I quite like the space. All of the objects are diminutive, and many have a kind of geometrical simplicity and elegance which gives the space its own distinct aesthetic. But we have no time to stop and savor. We walk from China, through Korea, and into India. 

For me, the standout objects in these galleries are the many small figurines of gods. Indian sculpture enchants me for the kind of whimsical energy it often possesses. Though magnificent, the many gods do not seem remote or beyond reach, but rather quite approachable and inviting. These galleries are arranged chronologically, so we begin at around 2,000 BCE—about as old as anything in the Egyptian or the Ancient Near East sections—and move towards the present. To pick just a few of my favorite examples, there is an Avalokiteshvara Padmapani from the 7th century, a Bodhisattva who seems to be coyly beckoning. Or there is a statue of Shiva as the Lord of Dance, wherein the god is shown mid-stride, dancing within a fiery circle.

Another favorite is Yashoda with the Infant Krisha, who is suckling the young diety at her breast. This sculpture is especially resonant for Westerners, since we also have a tradition of representing the sacred mother suckling the divine child. But the style is here so very different. Whereas Mary is de-sexualized as much as possible, Yashoda is nearly naked and her breasts are almost comically large (of course, I am looking at this sculpture as a Westerner). Indian art is, after all, famous for its erotic content. An excellent example of this is a sculpture of a loving couple in a passionate embrace, made in the 13th century. You may be surprised to learn that this was part of the decoration of a temple. Certainly you would never see anything similar on a gothic cathedral!

The last work I will mention is a statue of Ganesha from the 12th century. This elephant-headed god is the bestower of good fortune, and it is customary to make an offering before doing anything important. When I visited a few years ago, I was delighted to find that this practice extended into the museum: there were coins left at the base of the statue. 

We still have Japan to cover, but first we must take a little detour. Standing near the end of the section on India and Southern Asia is a beautiful wooden ceiling. This comes from a Jain temple built in the late 16th century. The staircase underneath this roof leads up to a small gallery on the floor above, this one devoted to the arts of Tibet and Nepal. For my part, this is some of the coolest art that I have ever seen. Though thematically related to art in both the Chinese and the Indian sections, the art here has a peculiar intensity not found anywhere else. An example of this is the painting of Walse Ngampa, a wrathful deity of Tibetan Buddhism. The figure has an electrifying intensity, with two arms wrapped around a terrified victim about to be devoured, while its many other arms are outstretched, holding symbolic objects.

When we descend, we can finally make our way to the section of Japanese art. Here, too, we can find some excellent statues. I particularly like the wooden guardian figures, which flank a statue of the Dainichi Nyorai, or the Cosmic Buddha. These guardian figures are formidable. I am always drawn to their fearsome grimaces. Even more wonderful is Ogata Korin’s ink drawing of waves on a folding panel. Here we can see a non-Western tradition of drawing that is intensely sophisticated. The waves do not occupy any kind of realistic space, but instead seem to emerge from nowhere and engulf everything. The lines of the waves are nothing like the blurry colors of Turner’s seascapes, which gives these waves a disturbing sense of solidity; the leading edge of the water appears sharp and even claw-like. It is a wonderful image.

We have already spent hours and hours in this museum, and yet there is still more to see. From the Japanese Department we can move on to the Department of Musical Instruments. This is housed in two galleries overlooking the section of Arms and Armor. I have never seen a collection of musical instrument that even comes close to the Met’s collection. There are superb examples of instruments from around the world: Italian harpsichords, Chinese pipas (similar to a lute), Native American rattles, Congolese horns, and Japanese drums. Seeing them in this context reminds us that instruments can be very beautiful simply as objects. To pick just one extravagant example, there is an Indian taus (a bowed lute) in the form of a peacock. And, of course, we must not neglect to mention the Stradivarius violins.

This gallery also has paintings with musical subjects hanging on the walls. My favorite is Dancing in Columbia, by Fernando Botero, if only because a copy of it has been hanging in my mother’s living room as far back as I can remember. Two balconies connect the two halves of the instrument department. On one of these is a charming old organ, and on the other is a fantastic assortment of wind instruments, arranged as if they are exploding from a central point. It is an evocative representation of a fanfare. 

By now we have made our way through most of the major sections of the museum. There is only one place left on our tour: the Robert Lehman Collection.

Robert Lehman was a banker who owned one of the biggest and best private art collections in history. Active for a long time on the Metropolitan Board of Directors, he bequeathed his extraordinary collection to the Met, but on the condition that it not be mixed in with the other departments. Thus, the Met built a special space, attached at the back of the building, almost like a spaceship taking off from the main building. The rooms of the department are furnished to vaguely evoke a private home. Personally, I do not like having this department separate, since I do not see any good reason to do so other than vanity. If Lehman wanted his collection separate, he could have done what Frick or Morgan did, and established his own museum. But, in any case, there are some extraordinary works of art to be found, so it cannot be missed.

Robert Lehman seems to have been most interested in European paintings, and that is what we find in abundance. One of my favorites is The Creation of the World and the Expulsion from Paradise, by Giovanni di Paolo. I love the color pallette of the paintings, filled with rich dark hues. But I am most drawn to the representation of the creation of the world: with God holding a series of concentric circles surrounding an image of Eden. Most famous, perhaps, is a portrait by Ingres of the Princesse de Broglie. Ingres’s technique is masterful, brilliantly capturing the rich fabric of her dress and furniture. It is also psychologically subtle, as it shows us a woman poised between shy reserve and self-assuredness.

There are dozens of other great paintings in this collection, and thousands upon thousands of great works in the museum, but this is where our tour must end. I have already written far too much. But the Met is endless—or, at least, it might as well be.

Confronted with such an enormous mass of culture and beauty from all around the world, it is difficult to know how to react. Part of me wonders whether all of these objects really should be here. With the financial resources that the Met possesses, the museum has been able to get nearly anything. But should they? And were all of the objects collected in ways that we would now approve of? Admittedly, the museum is trying to address this last question with their Provenance Project, paying particular attention to works that may have been looted by the Nazis and not restituted to their rightful owners. Personally I wonder about many of the objects in the Department of Oceanic, African, and American arts. 

On the other hand, I think it is important that we do have spaces where we can see the human experience as one enormous tapestry. Traveling from Egypt, to China, to Turkey, to Senegal—in short, to nearly every inhabited corner of the world—and seeing these different traditions unfold through centuries of time: one would hope that this might lead to some insight into our human condition. There are some very obvious lessons, the most obvious one being that humans really like to make art. Other common themes are the relationships between art and power, or art and religion. It is all too much to really digest everything. But I hope every visit provides just a little bit more to chew on.

To conclude rather lamely, the Met is a uniquely excellent museum. Not only does it have vast and high-quality collections, but the museum is unique in many respects. As often mentioned, there is the museum’s emphasis on interior decoration and the arts of daily life. More important is the museum’s attempt to be all-inclusive: incorporating art from all over the world, and from every historical period. The Met’s view of art is expansive, incorporating not only paintings and sculptures, but swords, helmets, harpsichords, photographs, and dresses (the Costume Institute is downstairs). It is a kind of universal storehouse of human activity. I will surely keep going as long as my legs will take me.

Two NY Churches: Saint John the Divine and Riverside Church

Two NY Churches: Saint John the Divine and Riverside Church

New York provides an architectural feast, especially if you do not mind straining your neck. Not least among the city’s treasures are its many churches. I have already discussed Saint Patrick’s, the city’s Catholic cathedral, easily one of the grandest buildings in the city. But Saint Patrick’s is not the only cathedral in New York. 

Further uptown is a cathedral of even grander proportions: Saint John’s. This is a behemoth of a building, certainly the largest church building in New York City and arguably in the entire country. (The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, in Washington D.C., covers more area but contains far less volume.) And the building as it exists now falls far short of the original plan. Neither of the cathedral’s front towers has been completed, nor has the enormous tower that was to stand over the midpoint of the building. Indeed, after a fire destroyed the north transept in 2001, the cathedral has even lacked a crucifix floorplan. This has led it to be informally dubbed St. John the Unfinished.

Even with all of these parts missing, however, it is a giant church. Not to be outdone by the Catholics, the Epicopalians conceived the project as a way to rival or even surpass St. Patrick’s. This cathedral, too, is built in an elaborate neo-gothic style that mimics the great cathedrals of France and Spain. Its hulking façade, with its three enormous doors sitting underneath pointed arches, beckons the visitor from the streets of modern Manhattan to a seemingly medieval world. All of the decorations carefully maintain this illusion, from the frilly spires, to the ornamental carvings, to the friezes of Biblical scenes above the doors. Even the monumental brass doors are covered in art, showing scenes from the life of Christ and representations of the four evangelists. Aside from the cathedral’s manifestly incomplete state, the only thing that breaks the illusion is the appearance of grey discoloration from car exhaust.

Note the person at bottom right, for scale.

The inside is fully in keeping with this aesthetic. Enormous pillars hold up a vaulted ceiling, while stained glass windows allow colored light to drift inside. The visitor is greeted by a beautifully carved wooden choirstall, holding an image of Christ against a golden background. (This is a real 15th century German work, on loan from the Metropolitan.) The cathedral even has a sort of poor man’s version of the Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey. As far as I know, there are no actual poets buried in this section of the church; instead, small tablets bearing the names and brief quotes of famous American authors cover the floor. According to the plaque, the idea was inspired by a rector in the church of Washington Irving in my hometown, Tarrytown.

All this is true to the style of highfalutin European cathedrals. Closer inspection, however, reveals a church very unlike those it imitates, even St. Patrick’s downtown. Saint John the Divine was conceived as a different sort of institution, a “Democratic Church,” as it dubs itself, open to any and all who would like to come. True to form, the rainbow colors of LGBT pride were displayed prominently near one altar. And this is not a pose. To pick just two examples of the church’s progressive tendency, the cathedral hosted a performance by Diamanda Galás meant to raise awareness of the AIDS epidemic, and displayed Edwina Sandys’ statue, Christa, a portrayal of Christ as a woman (unsurprisingly, a very controversial work).

All of this is world’s apart from the staid, traditional activity of St. Patrick’s. On the other hand, it is free to walk into the Catholic cathedral, while visitors of Saint John’s have to pay.

Adjacent to the building is an attractive little green space, known as the West 111th Street People’s Garden. Here is located the building of the Cathedral School, a K–8 school for children of any faith; and during the summer it is common to see flocks of children in summer camp parading by. Nearby is the Peace Fountain, a sculpture by Greg Wyatt supposedly portraying the battle between the Archangel Michael and Satan, and the triumph of good over evil. Yet to me the statue looks like an angel strangling a curious giraffe. In any case, the odd sculpture provides a nice illustration of the cathedral’s less orthodox attitude towards traditional themes.

To get to our next church, we must walk a good twenty minutes or so. The pleasantest route takes us directly through the main campus of Columbia University. Founded in 1754 as King’s College, Columbia is the oldest university in New York, and one of the best in the world. Suffice to say that everyone from Alexander Hamilton to Barack Obama have studied there. The campus leaves no doubt as to the honor, splendor, and pretensions of the institution. The grandiose Butler Library, for example, is adorned with the names of great thinkers and writers: Herodotus, Plato, Shakespeare, Tacitus, Voltaire… Directly opposite is the Low Memorial Library, another stately neoclassical edifice; and on the steps leading up to its entrance is the statue of Alma Mater, a symbol of the university, made by the same sculpture who designed the Lincoln Memorial, Daniel Chester French.

The thirsty or hungry traveler may also take a small detour to stop at Tom’s Restaurant, a diner used in the exterior shots of Seinfeld. (Though the outside looks exactly like it does in the show, the inside looks nothing like the fictional Monk’s Cafe.) It is a nice place to have a coffee.

The walk further uptown takes us alongside Riverside Park, and through some quite swanky neighborhoods, with upscale apartments attended by liveried doormen. It is an appropriate setting for a church intimately connected with wealth: Riverside Church.

Riverside Church was the idea of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Curiously, this was not the first Rockefeller church that I visited. Much closer to my home, Rockefeller helped to establish the Union Church in Pocantico Hills, a lovely stone building with beautiful stained-glass windows by Marc Chagal and Henri Mattise. Riverside Church is much grander in scale, with an enormous bell tower that rises high up above the rest of the building, and which makes Riverside the tallest church building in the United States.

So big is the tower, in fact, that the actual church seems insignificant by comparison, though it is by no means small. The interior consists of a single nave, again neo-gothic in design, filled with pointed arches and stained glass. Architecturally, it is more perfectly composed, more pure of form than Saint John’s, which lends it a rare tranquility and grace. It is simple and beautiful. John D. Rockefeller was motivated to found the church partly out of a dissatisfaction with the Baptism of his youth. He wanted a more modern church, which is why Riverside is nondenominational, and also why great figures of science are carved into the decorations, including Galileo, Newton, and even Darwin.

Riverside Church is like Saint John’s in its history of progressive activism. Indeed, the church arguably has an even stronger connection to social reform. Most famously, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a major speech against the Vietnam War here, in 1967; and there are still photographs of him on the bulletin board. A far more humble mark of the church’s ethos is the bathroom sign, which declares “Anyone can use this restroom regardless of gender identity or expression.” The church is still an epicenter for advocacy on many fronts, from anti-torture, to immigrants’ rights, to support for the HIV-positive. It is a model for a humanitarian church.

It is hardly sensible to visit Riverside Church without visiting the monument next door. Within a few hundred feet of the church doors is the tomb of Ulysses S. Grant, hero of the Civil War and 18th President of the United States. It is the largest and grandest tomb of an American President, an enormous neoclassical structure complete with Greek columns and domed ceiling. Even though his presidency has been widely regarded as a failure, he was an immensely popular figure at the time of his death; his funeral drew one and a half million spectators. This explains the grandiose design of his final resting place, which is highly reminiscent of Napoleon’s tomb in Les Invalides.

Nowadays, the tomb is a quiet and largely ignored corner of New York, with a handful of tourists respectfully poking about at any one time. Yet it is well worth a visit. Grant is interred in a massive granite coffin, alongside his wife in an identical sarcophagus. The coffins are below the floor level, visible through a hole in the floor, where they rise up from the lower level on a platform—again, much like Napoleon’s tomb. The visitor can descend and walk around the coffins, pausing to admire the busts of other Civil War generals, such as William Tecumseh Sherman. On the upper level, flanking the staircase, are two side chapels with historical flags from the war. And up above a mosaic depicts the surrender of Robert E. Lee to Grant. One could be forgiven for thinking that Grant was a general alone, and not a president, from the evidence of his tomb.

Here is where I will end my little tour, which can take as little as a couple hours. Separated by only a few blocks are the largest and the tallest churches in the United States—not to mention a historic university and an enormous tomb. But Saint John the Divine and Riverside Church are, for me, far more than architectural delights. They are living institutions, still engaged in the proper work of religion: to improve the lives of their congregations.

NY Museums: The American Museum of Natural History

NY Museums: The American Museum of Natural History

This is part of a series on New York City museums. For the other posts, see below:


There is no place in New York City to which I have a more intimate connection than the American Museum of Natural History. I practically grew up inside its walls. For a nerdy boy on the Upper West Side, it was the perfect place for a weekend outing. My mom recalls taking me there and letting me run around in the big Hall of Ocean Life, while she enjoyed a beer at the refreshment stand. (They do not sell beer anymore.) My dad took me plenty of times, too, and then followed up the visit with a meatball subway sandwich.

Kids still love the museum. The natural world, after all, is far more accessible than the highfalutin world of art. A child who is still figuring out the basics of the world around her has no need of elaborate images to reconnect her to her senses. And it is fortunate for our society that the museum is so accessible to children. Judging from the case of Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould, or Neil deGrasse Tyson (as well as myself) the fascination exerted on youthful visitors to the museum often matures into a fascination for the natural world and a respect for the power of human reason. And you do not need to be a child to feel this twin amazement at world without and the intelligence within. I feel it every time I visit.

You can enter the museum from several spots. The grandest is, without a doubt, through the Roosevelt Rotunda on Central Park West. When walking up the stairs, the visitor will notice the heroic equestrian statue of President Theodore Roosevelt. It is worth pausing to continue this statue, for it encapsulates much of the controversial history of the institution. The mustachioed man is flanked by a Native American and an African man, both on foot, and both looking rather dejected to my eyes. The racial message is clear: the white man sits atop the lesser races. To its credit, the AMNH is acknowledging this imagery with a special exhibit, “Addressing the Statue.” I think this strategy is far preferable to the idea of simply removing it, since now the statue provides an opportunity for learning.

Theodore Roosevelt holds a special place in the history of the museum. His father was one of the museum’s founders, when it was still housed in the Arsenal Building of Central Park. The younger Roosevelt was himself an ardent naturalist, and we have him to thank for many of our country’s most beautiful national parks. But being a nationalist in those days did not mean what it means today. Roosevelt did an awful lot of hunting on behalf of the museum, providing some of the exotic animals that were later stuffed and mounted in the amazing displays. Our views on hunting big game and on racial differences have both, fortunately, evolved since then.

To thank the President for his support, the museum is studded with acknowledgements. The most extravagant of these is the massive mural painted by William Andrew Mackay, covering three tall walls of the Roosevelt Rotunda, where the visitor enters. These depict the eventful life of the naturalist president, turning him into a kind of secular saint on the walls of the cavernous room. But of course most people’s attention is absorbed by what is happening in the middle: the dramatic encounter between a brontosaurus protecting its calf, and the hungry allosaurus prowling for prey. Both the baby and the predator are dwarfed by the gargantuan form of the brontosaurus, whose already significant height is bolstered by standing on its hind legs. Personally I doubt that such a massive animal could perform such a maneuver without breaking its legs. Indeed, replica fossils had to be used, since the real fossils (made of stone, after all) are too heavy to mount in such a way.

Much as I would like to move on to the museum’s exhibits, there is one more relic from the museum’s past that deserves comment. Downstairs from the glorious Roosevelt Rotunda is the Roosevelt Memorial Hall, which includes four small exhibitions about the varied activities of the president: his interest in nature; his love of exploration; his time as a statesman; and his life as a writer. What draws most attention, however, is a diorama showing a meeting between Peter Stuyvesant—the Dutch leader of what later became NYC—and the indigenous Lenape people. Made in 1939, this diorama contains several omissions and inaccuracies that work in the Europeans’ favor, such as showing the Lenape almost nude. Again, to its credit, the AMNH has included annotations on the glass, pointing out several of these problems; and their website includes lesson plans to help visiting teachers use the diorama.

I am dwelling on these examples of the museum’s less noble past, not to portray the institution in a negative light, but to show that the museum is working to improve itself without burying its past. It is a model to imitate. And the museum has a long history. This year, 2019, marks the 150th anniversary of the institution. This makes the AMNH one year older than the Metropolitan, which was founded in 1870.

Now it is finally time to enter the museum. Luckily, the entrance fee is still a suggested donation for all visitors, so you need not break the bank. What should we see first? There is a great deal to choose from. In fact, the AMNH is the largest natural history museum in the world, with millions upon millions of specimens of animals, fossils, minerals, artifacts… It would be virtually impossible to see the entire thing in one day. For my part, it has taken me dozens of visits to fully wrap my mind around the museum; and even a lifetime would not suffice to learn all it has to teach.

Let us go on straight ahead from the Roosevelt Rotunda into the Hall of African Mammals. Simply as a work of art, this is one of the high points of the museum. In the center a herd of eight African elephants—bulls, cows, and calves—huddle together. Arranged around this heard, in little niches in the walls, are other exotic animals: lions, zebras, giraffes. The visitor would be forgiven for thinking that all of these were merely plastic replicas; but they are real taxidermied specimens of animals (one of the elephants was shot by Theodore Roosevelt himself). This gives the dioramas a kind of macabre air, which is combined with melancholy when examining endangered species such as the rhinos and the gorillas. 

Yet art intervenes to uplift this collection of exotic bodies into a thrilling exhibit. Every diorama is masterfully done: the animals stand in dramatic, lifelike poses amid an environment so scrupulously recreated as to be totally convincing. Added to this are the paintings on the curved surfaces enclosing the dioramas. These hand-painted backgrounds are worthy works of art in their own right: adapting perspective to the wall’s curvature in order to create a nearly seamless continuation with the scene in the foreground. The result is a strange blend of natural beauty and human invention, which is at turns convincingly lifelike and technically astounding. As I walked along from diorama to diorama, I felt like pilgrim visiting a church, walking around from chapel to chapel.

The lion’s share of the credit for this work goes to Carl Akeley, who participated in both collecting and mounting these specimens. Though this business of big-game taxidermy can seem to us in the present day as grim and barbaric, I think that Akeley deserves to be viewed as an artist of high ability. Creating compelling nature dioramas is no easy matter. It requires a naturalist’s eye for fact and a sculpture’s eye for form. To construct a compelling design that is, at the same time, true to nature, requires a special knack. Akeley was a master of it.

A kind of sister to this gallery is the Hall of Asian Mammals, also accessible through the Roosevelt Rotunda. This is a decidedly smaller space; and as the plaque on the wall informs us, the animals here are owed to a “Mr. Ferney” and a “Colonel Faunthorpe,” who made six expeditions into Asia to hunt these animals. Two Asian Elephants stand in the center of this gallery, slightly smaller than their African counterparts. This gallery originally contained a specimen of a giant panda and a Siberian tiger, but the subsequent history of those species led the museum to place these in the Hall of Biodiversity as examples of endangered species (more later). On my latest trip, I learned that there is a type of Asian Lion with a rangy mane, which lives in a small sliver of India.

Now let us descend a flight of stairs once again to the Rockefeller Memorial Hall, on the ground floor. Here we can enter the space directly below the Hall of African Mammals: the Hall of North American Mammals. We find still more superb animal dioramas. The most famous of these is the Alaska Brown Bear. Two of these stand behind the glass. One is reared up on its hind legs, while the other prowls menacingly nearby. The height of the upright bear is startling. Standing before it, you feel how easily this creature could overpower you. Another superb display is of the moose, which features two bull moose jousting with their antlers. As a Canadian friend once told me, moose are the “king of the beasts.”

A quick trip through the Roosevelt Memorial Hall will lead us to one of the museum’s newer spaces: the Hall of Biodiversity. Opened in 1998, it did not exist when I was a young child. The room has a stunning design. Through the center is a swath of artificial rainforest, made to replicate one of earth’s most diverse environments. A legion of tentacled creatures hang from the ceiling, including a giant squid, an octopus, and a massive jellyfish. A glass case holds the giant panda and Siberian tiger, among others, as examples of endangered species; and the bones of the long-dead dodo can be found. Most of the action takes place on the far wall, which is illuminated from behind. Here is represented the entire panoply of life, from bacteria, to algae, to fungi, to plants, and finally to all the many variations of animals: worms, insects, crustaceans, mollusks, and vertebrates of every kind. (There is an online version that you can click through.)

The sheer abundance of models on display gives a visual illustration to the richness of life on this planet. This amazing variety, developed over 3 billion years of evolution, goes far beyond our humdrum ideas about plant and animal types. To give an example, once a teacher of mine asked everyone in class to make a guess at how many species of bee there are in the world. People’s guesses ranged between 12 and 300. The answer is 20,000. Unfortunately, this biodiversity is being dramatically curtailed through human action—which is why this gallery was made. 

This attractive space opens up to what has always been, for me, the most dramatic room in the museum: the Hall of Ocean Life. Here is where I would spend most of my time as a child. This hall is one of the biggest spaces in the museum. It is dominated by the life-sized model of a blue whale, the largest animal to ever exist on the planet, hanging from the ceiling. This lightweight model weighs no less than 21,000 pounds—so just imagine what the real animal must weigh. It is frankly stupefying that something so large can be alive. The entire herd of elephants from the Hall of African Mammals can huddle underneath its belly.

Dioramas line the walls of both floors of this hall. The best of these are on the bottom, where you can find a polar bear, a pod of walruses, and a huddle of sea lions. Here, as elsewhere, these displays are amazingly dramatic and lifelike. We can see the sharks in pursuit of the poor sea turtle, and the dolphins jumping out of the water to catch some flying fish. But the real masterpiece of this hall is the battle between the sperm whale and the giant squid. The sperm whale is the biggest toothed predator in the world, and its prey is likewise large. This big-headed mammal dives deep under the water—sometimes over a mile deep, going more than an hour without breathing—in order to prey on the invertebrate monsters that lurk below.

The most notable foe of this whale is the giant squid, itself one of the world’s largest animals, capable of growing to over 40 feet in length. When a whale finally catches on of these squids, it must be a serious fight, as the suction-cup scars found on the hide of sperm whales attest to. The diorama evokes all the drama of this encounter. We arrive once the fight has commenced: the whale has one of the squid’s tentacles in its jaws, and the squid is wrapped around the whale’s enormous head. The diorama is illuminated in a semi-darkness that recalls the inky blackness of the deep ocean

As a child, I found this scene both fascinating and terrifying, and became obsessed. I drew the battle over and over, doing my best to perfect the two different forms: the smooth blue whale and the sprawling red squid. Even now, this conflict between the big-brained sperm whale and the monstrous giant squid calls to mind a deep conflict within our own nature.

This description only touches upon the strange, otherworldly beauty on display in the Hall of Ocean Life—a beauty that captivated me as a child and which still moves me. The world below the seas is more fantastic and alien than anything dreamed up in science fiction. You can see this clearly in the three dioramas depicting life in the ancient oceans: creatures whose bodies form spirals, cones, wings, prowling about on an ocean floor populated with blooming anemones. The colorful, twisting, bulbous forms of the coral reef also evoke this strange allure. A part of me has always wished to be a marine biologist.

Now we will leave the Hall of Ocean Life to travel back through the Hall of Biodiversity, to enter a space which I have still not adequately explored. The first is the Hall of North American Forests. This space is dedicated to the sorts of environments present in the United States and Canada, from the deserts of Arizona to the cold forests of Ontario. The most impressive object on display is a cross section from a 1,400 year-old Sequoia. It is enormous: big enough to serve as a dance floor or even to serve as the foundation for a house. Notable historical events are marked on the tree rings, going from the invention of book printing in China (in 600), to the crowning of Charlemagne (in 800), to the death of Chaucer (in 1400), to the ascension of Napoleon (in 1804), to when the tree was finally cut down, in 1891.

This hall is also notable for a diorama depicting the little critters who live in the soil, responsible for breaking down organic matter and keeping the cycles of life in swing. The worm, centipede, and daddy-long-legs are blown up to 24 times their actual size, which is not a pleasant sight. The same can be said for the giant model of a malarial mosquito, which does not increase my affection for that species. Teddy Roosevelt played a part in educating the public about the role mosquitos play in spreading malaria, since he had to deal with the disease when overseeing the Panama Canal.

When we leave this hall, we enter yet another of the museum’s grand entrance spaces. This is named, appropriately enough, the Grand Gallery. It is most famous for the hanging Great Canoe, made by the peoples of the Pacific Northwest. Carved from a single tree, this enormous boat can hold a dozen people and is suitable for use in ocean waves. The front features an exquisite painting of a killer whale. When I was a boy, I normally entered the museum here. At the time the canoe was filled with the plastic figures of Native Americans; and I would look at these mannequins with a kind of uncomprehending terror, since I could not figure out what those men were doing. The museum has since refurbished the canoe and removed the figures, hanging it higher so as to make the decoration more visible. 

There are still other treasures to be found in this gallery. In one corner is a glass containing an ammonite fossil. This are extinct mollusks which looked like squids living in a spiral shell. This particular ammonite happened to fossilize under high pressure, which resulted in it being an iridescent rainbow. Nearby is a magnificent stibnite: a metallic crystal formed from antimony and sulfur. These crystals form themselves into a collection of jagged silver spikes all sprouting from a central core. A nearby child compared it to a porcupine.

The Grand Gallery normally leads to the Northwest Coast Hall; but it is currently closed for renovation. This hall is the oldest continued exhibit space in the museum, having been opened in 1900. The peoples of the Pacific Northwest are known throughout the world for the high quality of their visual art, including the iconic totem pole. This hall contained a great many of these poles, among other art, which made it one of the museum’s more beautiful spaces. Much of this was collected by the pioneering anthropologist, Franz Boas, during the famed Jesup North Pacific Expedition of 1897 – 1902. The current renovations are yet another example of the museum’s attempt to confront its past: updating the information to reflect how these cultures wish to be represented, rather than how anthropologists represented them 100 years ago.

The Grand Gallery also leads into the equally grand Hall of Human Origins. Opened in 1921, this hall was the first exhibit about the controversial topic of human evolution in the United States. The hall still performs this admirable task, teaching visitors about the evolutionary past of our own species. The visitor is first confronted with three skeletons, one of a modern human, one of a chimpanzee (our closest living relative), and one of a Neanderthal (our nearest extinct cousin). On the wall there are models of various primates, with their genetic similarity to humans shown underneath. Chimpanzees are nearly identical, with 99% similarity.

A major highlight are casts of famous human ancestor fossils, including Turkana Boy and Lucy. (I myself studied human evolution in the Turkana Basin, so it is always gratifying to see the plaque about the region.) There is also a reproduction of the Laetoli Footprints—imprints preserved in volcanic ash 3.5 million years ago, showing clear evidence of bipedalism—and a diorama of the what the two australopithecus may have looked like as they walked across the ashy plain (the male with his arm snuggly around his mate). There are also scenes representing the life of early humans, building shelters out of mammoth bones or being ambushed by giant hyenas. It was a tough life back in the paleolithic.

After moving through the Hall of Human Origins, you come to the Hall of Meteorites. This is most notable for containing a large chunk of the Cape York Meteorite. It is unknown when this iron meteorite struck the earth (near Cape York, in Greenland), though it was likely thousands if not millions of years ago. The original meteorite broke up into three large pieces, which were used by the Inuit living nearby to make iron tools. For decades Westerners searched for the mysterious source of iron (not easy to come by in the arctic), until Robert Peary, the explorer, finally found the meteorites and arranged for them to be transported and sold to the AMNH (likely without compensating the Inuit). The fragment displayed is so heavy that the foundations for the platform had to be built down to the bedrock below. It’s an awfully big rock. 

The Hall of Meteorites normally leads to the Hall of Gems and Minerals. However, this hall is closed for renovations at the moment, which does not surprise me, since every time I visited the hall struck me as looking decidedly retro. The angular, geometrical design of the room (which appropriately mirrors that of a crystal) was praised highly when it was opened in the 1970s; but nowadays it looks very similar to how Kubrick imagined the future would be, in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Nevertheless, this is one of the most beautiful corners of the museum. The glass displays, arranged throughout the room, are filled with gleaming stones—gems which reflect and refract light in a thousand distinct ways. 

(Visit here to see photos of the original gallery and concept drawings for the new gallery.)

This hall has a colorful history. Whenever I visit, I think that the hall looks like the kind of place Lex Luther would rob in order to get some kryptonite. Other people have had similar thoughts, it seems. In 1964, Jack Roland Murphy (“Murph the Surf”), with two accomplices, snuck into the museum and stole some of its most famous pieces: the Eagle Diamond, the DeLong Star Ruby, and the Star of India sapphire (all donated to the museum by J.P. Morgan). The thieves were eventually caught, and the jewels found and returned to the museum—the Star of India was found in a bus station foot locker—with the notable exception of the Eagle Diamond, which was likely cut into smaller pieces and sold. (Murph the Surf was later convicted for murder; in prison he became a minister and was released early; he is currently the vice president of the International Network of Prison Ministries.) 

The heist even inspired a 1975 movie.

We have gone to the very end of the museum, but we have still left out one of the museum’s most notable wings: the Rose Center for Earth and Space. Opened in 2000 (so I did not see it as a child) this is the newest part of the museum, and it shows. The space-age design features a massive central sphere enclosed in a glass cube. The new Hayden planetarium is housed within this sphere, where visitors can see shows projected on the upper dome. Neil deGrasse Tyson is the first and, so far, the only director of the Rose Center; and he narrates many of the astronomical shows.

Below this “cosmic cathedral” (as the designer called it) is the Hall of the Universe. Here you can find information about stars, planets, galaxies, and the moon, all displayed on sleek metallic panels. There are scales that tell you what your weight would be on Mars and the Moon (in pounds, which requires a conversion for non-American visitors). In one clear glass case there is a self-contained ecosystem of algae and tiny shrimp—a microcosm that represents the macrocosm of earth. A curving walkway that leads away from the planetarium takes the visitor through the entire history of the universe, from the big bang to the present day. 

The star of the hall is the Willamette Meteorite. This is another iron meteorite, yet it looks strikingly different from the Cape York Meteorite. Its surface is pockmarked—I believe from centuries of weather erosion. The rock has been on earth a long time. Possibly the core of an early proto-planet, smashed to smithereens in a cosmic collision, this meteorite struck earth thousands of years ago (but we have yet to be able to find the impact sight). It was found in Oregon, but it was likely moved by expanding and receding glaciers. As with the Cape York Meteorite, the Willamette Meteorite was taken without the consent of the native peoples who had long known about it. This led to a lawsuit, in 1999, by the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Community of Oregon, demanding the return of the rock (which had been in the museum for nearly 100 years by then). Luckily, the AMNH reached a deal that allowed it to keep the meteorite.

Adjoining the Hall of the Universe is the Hall of Planet Earth, devoted to geology. This gallery has accomplished the difficult job of rendering geology visible, tactile, and immediate. The space is filled with models of geological formations, many of which can be touched. These slices of earth help to illustrate the normally invisible processes below the surface which have shaped our planet—the slow churning of the continental plates, the effects of receding glaciers and running water, the volcanic explosions which hurl up new land from the depths. The hall also has a section devoted to climate change, which features an ice core (a piece of ice formed over thousands of years) which the visitor can “read” by moving a monitor over different sections, thus revealing how the climate has changed. 

From what I observed, children love the Rose Center for Earth and Space. Everywhere I looked young kids were reading, looking, touching, laughing, and in general having a great time. To me this represents an accomplishment of a high order. Making whales and dinosaurs accessible to children is straightforward; but to make accessible the abstract theories of physics, the slow processes of geology, and the distant threat of global climate change—this calls for subtlety and skill, and the designers of this hall have accomplished their task with brilliance.

Now we must get to an elevator and ascend from the bottom to the top floor. We have dallied in the museum for a good, long time, and it will close soon, so we had better get to the spectacular fossil rooms on the fourth floor.

The proper place to begin is on the Orientation Hall. Here the visitor can see a video that explains some background of evolution and cladistics (making evolutionary trees). But the visitor will likely have difficulty focusing on this video, since in 2016 the museum added an enormous dinosaur to the room. This is the Titanosaur, a massive, long-necked sauropod whose form dominates the space. From tail to head, the animal stretches 119 feet (or 32 meters); and in life it likely weighed well over 60 tons (an adult elephant, by comparison, weighs about one-tenth as much). The size of these animals is simply staggering—especially considering that they began life in an egg scarcely bigger than that of an ostrich. How much vegetation did one of these have to eat in a day in order to survive? 

The fossil rooms make a closed circuit, so the visitor can go in any direction. The most logical direction to go in, however, is to begin with the Hall of Vertebrate Origins—since this way the galleries are chronological.

From the perspective of biology, the Hall of Vertebrate Origins is likely the most fascinating hall of fossils, even if it lacks any of the spectacular specimens of later eons. We can see examples of the first vertebrates, on sea, on land, and in the air. One of the more memorable fossils on display are the jaws of the extinct Megalodon, a shark that lived millions of years ago, and which grew several times larger than today’s great white shark. The tremendous and terrifying jaws, hanging from the ceiling, dwarf even the bite of a Tyrannosaur. Nearby hangs a model of the Dunkleosteus, an armored fish that lived many hundreds of millions of years before the Megalodon, and which likely was major predator of its day. Further on is a Pterosaur, a member of the first known vertebrates to have achieved flight. (Commonly called dinosaurs, the Pterosaurs were closely related but technically not dinosaurs. Also, the term “Pterodactyl” only refers to one subgroup of the Pterosaurs.)

These three examples only touch on the immense biological richness in this hall. For anyone hoping to better understand the history of life on our planet, their time will be well spent in close examinations of the specimens on display. The museum also offers computer booths that allow visitors to scroll through various evolutionary trees and learn more about different species.

We now come to one of the museum’s most spectacular spaces: the Hall of the Saurischian Dinosaurs. Now, Dinosaurs are typically split into two large evolutionary groups, the Ornithiscia and the Saurischia. The latter includes all carnivorous dinosaurs as well as sauropods (and birds, the only living dinosaur group). This means that this gallery includes the famous Tyrannosaur. Even when manifestly dead, the Tyrannosaur has a commanding presence. The mere thought of it being alive is enough to cause goose bumps. And this predator—one of the largest to have ever walked the earth—was likely even more terrifying than we normally think. According to the paleontologist Stephen Brusette, Tyrannosaurus was highly intelligent, had excellent vision, and likely lived and hunted in packs. One of them is frightening enough; imagine a gaggle of T. Rex. And to think that this fearsome creature began its life no bigger than a chicken. 

Across from the Tyrannosaur is another museum favorite, the Apatosaurus (sometimes called the Brontosaurus). This is a sauropod, somewhat smaller than the Titanosaur in the other room, but still large enough to make even the Tyrannosaur look petite by comparison. Another fearsome predator on display is the Allosaurus, a carnivore somewhat smaller than Tyrannosaurus that lived several million years earlier, which was an apex predator in its own epoch. This Allosaur is bending over to scrape some meat off of a fresh carcass. One less flashy specimen on display is the skull of a velociraptor (which, despite its portrayal in Jurassic Park, was about the size of a turkey).

Next we come to the Hall of the Ornithischian dinosaurs. This group does not contain quite as many star dinosaurs as the other hall, but it will not disappoint. Here can be found one of the museum’s most important specimens, a mummy of a duck-billed dinosaur. Unlike in the vast majority of dinosaur remains, here we do not only have the skeleton, but the skin of the ancient animal. This has allowed scientists to get a much better idea of what the scales of a dinosaur were like. Also on display is a Stegosaurus, famous for its small brain, spiked tail, and a back covered in vertical plates (whose purpose is still debated). My personal favorite, however, is the Triceratops, an herbivore that lived alongside T. rex and was one of its principal foes. Powerfully built, with a three-pronged horn and a protective ridge, hunting these beasts must have been no easy matter. 

I am always moved by the dinosaurs. They were magnificent animals, many of them so far beyond the range of size and power that we can find among today’s land mammals and reptiles. That such a diverse group of powerful beasts could go entirely extinct from a chance event—a meteoric bolt from the blue—cannot but remind us of our own precarious existence. Indeed, these chance catastrophes play a disturbingly crucial role in the history of life on our planet. Dinosaurs themselves would never have become so dominant if not for the Triassic-Jurassic extinction event (possibly caused by volcanic activity), which eliminated much of their competition. And the mammals would never have been able to emerge as the current dominant life form if not for the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event, which eliminated every one of these creatures (except for birds), thus leaving the stage set for us. But how long will we last?

The next hall focuses on the early history of our own clan, the mammals. The further back one goes in evolution, the mudier become the distinctions between distinct lineages. Thus, some of the fossils on display in the Hall of Primitive Mammals do not strike us as mammals—and in fact are not, only early relatives. Into this class falls the Dimetrodon, a sail-backed cuadroped that looks far more reptilian to my eyes than anything resembling a house cat. But a close examination of its skull reveals the tell-tale opening behind its eye socket, leaving a bony arch which scientists have decided constitutes the defining mark of a new class of animal, the Synapsids, which includes mammals.

The Hall of Primitive Mammals is notable for the mammal island—a large array of fossil specimens that illustrate the range of mammalian diversity. By any measure, we mammals are an immensely diverse lot, having populated the land, sea, and air, occupying all sorts of niches, and ranging in size from a large insect (the smallest bat) to the biggest animal ever to exist (the blue whale). Amid this sea of variety we find the Glyptodont, an extinct relative of the armadillo, far larger and far more heavily armored. The face of this fossil preserves a sense of the patient drudgery which must have characterized this poor beast’s life, as it dragged its heavy shell through the landscape. The saber-toothed cat led a more exciting, if not more successful, life thousands of years ago, as did the lumbering cave bear. But the most terrifying skeleton of all may belong to the Lestodon, an enormous ground sloth whose gaping nose socket seems to look at you like a cyclops.

Finally we come to the Hall of Advanced Mammals, which features species more recently extinct (many of which died off during the great megafauna extinction 10,000 years ago). Here we can see a large array of specimens that illustrate the evolution of horses, growing up from dainty things the size of dogs up into the stallions of today (though, as often happens with evolution, this progress was not always linear). At the end of the hall we see extinct relatives of the elephant. One is the mastodon, which is about the size and build of a modern elephant, if slightly stockier. This nearly complete fossil skeleton was found in New York—amazing to consider.

Standing a head taller is the Mammoth, a much closer relative of the elephant that went extinct not too long ago, while the Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations were well under way. It is massive, of nearly dinosaurian proportions, with tusks that curve so tightly inward that it seems they would have been useless for defense. (Scientists are now playing with the idea of using DNA from frozen mammoth remains to bring them back. I wish them luck.)

By now, you must be exhausted. Museum fatigue has set in, and you can no longer concentrate on or even enjoy what you are seeing. This is inevitable at the American Museum of Natural History. There is just way too much. I have already written far, far more than I planned to, and there is still so much of the museum left to explore. I have left out the Hall of Reptiles and Amphibians, the Hall of North American Birds, and the Hall of Primates. And that is not all. The museum has huge exhibits devoted to cultural anthropology. Aside from the aforementioned Northwest Coast Hall, there is the Hall of Asian Peoples, the Hall of African Peoples, the Hall of Mexico and Central America, and the Hall of South American Peoples.

And here I must add a note of criticism. It says a great deal that a museum of natural history would include exclusively non-Western cultures. Admittedly, this is largely a historical artifact of the time when the study of “primitive” living peoples was grouped with the study of human evolution and primate behavior in the discipline of “anthropology.” This grouping obviously reflected cultural and racial biases of the original founders of the field. But we have moved far beyond that, and now it seems discordant and strange to walk through, say, the Hall of Asian Peoples. How could a single hall, however well-made, encompass the enormous history and diversity of the Middle East, Central Asian, Southeastern Asia, and East Asia? Even encompassing the traditions of China alone would require a museum for itself. Not only that, but the cultural halls generally have a dark and dingy aspect, as if they have been left unchanged for decades.

So it is my hope that the museum soon refurbishes, not just the Northwest Coast Hall, but all of the cultural halls—taking into account not only advances in our understanding, but how the cultures themselves would like to be represented. Judging by the progress that the museum is already making in this respect, I think that the future looks bright.

What more can I say about the Museum of Natural History? I have already said more than I planned to, and yet it scarcely seems enough. My visits to the museum had a fundamental influence on me. My shifting interests throughout my childhood and adulthood—in marine biology, chemistry, physics, botany, human evolution, and human cultures—have virtually tracked the floor plan of the museum. From an early age, I have been possessed with a desire to collect, catalogue, and display—an urge which I am sure owes much to this place. Beyond its importance in my life, however, I see the Museum of Natural History as a model institution for the coming ages, as something much needed in our society, even as a kind of secular church for the new age: capable of appealing to the mind and to the emotions. I hope that every child may feel the wonder I felt, and still feel, at both the universe around us and the intelligence within, which has allowed us to know something of this universe.

NY Museums: The Cloisters

NY Museums: The Cloisters

This is part of a series on New York City museums. For the other posts, see below:


Sitting atop one of the highest points on the island of Manhattan, overlooking the palisades of the Hudson Valley stretching northwards, is the most convincing slice of Europe in New York—perhaps in the country. This is the Cloisters, a branch of the Metropolitan Museum, specializing in medieval art and architecture.

Like any great museum, the story of the Cloisters begins with a person and his vision. In this case we have George Grey Barnard, a European-trained sculptor and collector, who managed to acquire a large collection of medieval sculptures, pillars, and and tombs during his time in France. He did this by focusing on stones that had been the victims of pillage and war—often repurposed by local populations for mundane needs. This was an especially amazing feat, considering that Barnard—an exuberant and impulsive man—was not wealthy to begin with, and had terrible spending habits which often landed himself on the verge of financial ruin.

Junior
John D. Rockefeller, Jr.

It was during one of his periodic pecuniary crises that he was forced to sell his collection to John D. Rockefeller, Jr., a man who could hardly have been more different—puritanical, reserved, prudent. But the two men shared a love for medieval art; and Barnard’s collection was the first step towards Junior’s dream of opening a museum in this romantic niche of Manhattan.

Things moved rather swiftly with the world’s wealthiest man financing the project. After the acquisition of Barnard’s collection in 1925, Junior had Fort Tyron Park built around the chosen site (designed by the descendants of the designer of Central Park); then, he had substantial sections from abbeys in Catalonia and France shipped to New York, where they were incorporated into a single structure. The museum was then donated to the Metropolitan Museum, and the park to the city. The result is an oasis of medieval Europe in uptown Manhattan.

It is interesting to compare this museum to the one founded by Junior’s wife, Abby Aldrich: the MoMA. They are a study in contrast. The MoMA sits right in the center of the city, surrounded by activity and noise; its design is sleek and modern, with a vertical orientation and sterile white walls. The Cloisters is situated far from the city center; indeed it is somewhat inconvenient to visit the museum, since it is so out of the way. The surrounding park is quiet and bucolic, a haven from the noise and stress of city life. The museum building itself is an attempt to recreate the past: using traditional materials and techniques to mimic a bygone age. If the MoMA tries to break with tradition, the Cloisters tries to break with modernity. It is a wonder that Junior and Abby got along so well, since they had such diametrically opposed attitudes to art.

cloister_cloisters

The Cloisters is exceptional in that the building itself is one of the main attractions. Whenever possible, the original materials have been integrated into the structure, creating a faux-monastery, complete with quasi-churches and pseudo-cloisters, where imaginary monks perform invisible rituals. There are several ornamented doorways, with sculptures climbing up the sides and crowning the top. Some walls display decorative friezes—Biblical scenes and medieval bestiaries—and the windows shine with colorful stained glass. The cloisters have authentic columns, complete with Romanesque capitals; and there are three gardens where rare plant species pertinent to the medieval mind are grown. (Apparently, the madonna lily is associated with love and fertility.)

garden_cloisters

As for the museum’s collection, on display are fine examples of every type of medieval plastic art: paintings, altars, carvings, sculptures, reliquaries, sarcophagi, illuminated manuscripts, stained glass, and tapestries. For the most part these are not organized by medium or style, but by their architectural setting: they are placed to create a harmonious and authentic experience. Thus walking around the Cloisters is akin to exploring a great cathedral, whose every chapel contains distinct works of art, organized by religious themes rather than academic categories. The final effect is not an emphasis on any one piece in the collection, but on the collection as a gestalt: an integrated, aesthetically captivating space.

interior_cloisters

Nevertheless some pieces to stand out for special comment. One is the Mérode Altarpiece, whose central panel depicts the annunciation. It is a wonderful example of Dutch realism, showing a celestial scene taking place in a modest Dutch living room. I particularly like the Virgin’s round, plump face, and her carefree expression as she idly reads a book, not even bothering to look up at the angel bearing news of universal significance. In general the interior is convincingly painted—filled with fine detail, especially the book lying open on the table—but the perspective is a little uneven, as you can clearly see when comparing the table to the room. The kneeling figures of the donors are on the left-hand panel, looking appropriately wan and penitent. On the right, Joseph (looking considerably older than his wife) is busy at work as a carpenter; and behind him, through the window, we can see what is obviously a lovely Netherlandish town. (Biblical scholarship was not highly advanced in those days.)

Annunciation_Triptych_(Merode_Altarpiece)_MET_DP273206

Besides Rockefeller Junior, an important early donor to the museum was J.P. Morgan, who contributed a few items from his incomparable collection of rare manuscripts (most of which, however, he kept for his own museum downtown). Among these are the Cloisters Apocalypse, the Psalter of Bonne de Luxembourg, and the Hours of Jeanne d’Evreux. This last is particularly impressive. A “book of hours” is a prayer book, usually made for wealthy patrons, containing prayers appropriate for different times of the day. In this case, Jeanne d’Evreux was the third wife of king Charles IV of France (reigned 1325-28); and the book was executed by the Parisian artist Jean Pucelle, who was a witty inventor of drolleries (the little designs that frame the text in an illuminated manuscripts). In any case, the book is a terrific example of gothic illumination.

800px-4_Jean_Pucelle._Hours_of_Jeanne_d'Evreux._1325-28,_Metropolitan_Museum,_New-York

Yet my favorite work—and I suspect the favorite of many others—is the famed Unicorn Tapestries. This is a series of seven tapestries, depicting the hunt, capture, and (possible) rebirth of a unicorn. Its provenance is mysterious: First recorded in the possession of La Rochefoucauld family many years after their creation, then looted during the French Revolution (reputedly used to cover potatoes), the tapestries were ultimately acquired by Rockefeller Junior, who adored them and could scarcely bear donating them to the museum. But eventually his charity prevailed over his aesthetic greed, and now the tapestries hang in the museum for all to see.

800px-The_Unicorn_is_Attacked_MET1

What is immediately striking is the quality of their workmanship and preservation. I have seen a fair number of tapestries by now, and most are not nearly as detailed nor as vibrant. Scholars debate nearly everything about the works—their meaning, their relationship to paganism and Christianity, and even the order in which they should be seen. Nevertheless some basic narrative is obvious. A group of hunters sets out in the forest; they encounter the unicorn by a well, surrounded by other beasts; they attack; the unicorn defends itself, killing a dog with its horn and kicking a man; but the unicorn is surrounded, killed, and brought back to the castle (apparently with its horn missing). But there is one tapestry that is difficult to account for, showing a unicorn standing inside a fenced enclosure, alive and with horn intact. Where does this image fit in? Should it go first or last? Does the unicorn come back to life?

This last interpretation makes some sense, considering that the unicorn was used as a symbol for Christ during the Middle Ages. Still, the metaphor of hunting a unicorn seems odd for symbolizing the path to Christian salvation. Are the hunters supposed to be those seeking Christ’s wisdom, or is this rather a metaphor for the passion and death of Christ? I can hardly give a coherent answer; but the ambiguity only adds to the tapestry’s magnetic power. Yet even as images alone, the series is compelling: the lush forest, the atmosphere of fantasy, the dynamic encounters with the unicorn.

I am spilling words on these exceptional works, yet I feel I am failing to do justice to this museum—whose effect is never dependent on the excellence of a single piece. Indeed you might say that the building itself is the greatest work on display. Despite being a melange of elements—incorporating churches and monasteries from different eras and different regions—the Cloisters convincingly brings the visitor into the Medieval mindset: of chivalry, romance, nobility, and, most importantly, Christianity. Indeed, arguably the architectural eclecticism of the museum accurately captures the feel of medieval religious structures, which were often built over hundreds of years and incorporated several different mediums and styles.

cloisters_collage

So if you have any interest at all in the Middle Ages, I highly recommend taking the A train uptown (190th street station) to visit this shrine to a bygone age.

NY Museums: MoMA

NY Museums: MoMA

This is part of a series on New York City museums. For the other posts, see below:


I have always been prone to conservative tastes in music, literature, and art. I remember having long discussions in high school about the emptiness of contemporary music and the inanity of modern art (at the time, I knew close to nothing about visual art, ancient or modern). Every painting I encountered from the 20th century only confirmed my prejudices—using a minimum of technical skill to create images that were either incomprehensible or simply dull. At the ripe age of eighteen I mourned the decline in standards and the decadence of our culture.

Luckily, my tastes have broadened somewhat since then (though not as much as could be desired), and I have come to cherish the Museum of Modern Art as one of the great museums in New York—indeed, of the world.

Like many New York landmarks, the MoMA is a product of the Rockefeller family. Specifically, it was conceived and funded by Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, along with two of her friends.

Abby was the wife of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who himself had a great love of art. However, he and his wife had diametrically opposed tastes. Junior was fond of Chinese porcelain and medieval art (which led him to develop the Cloisters Museum, uptown), while his wife was enamored with modern art. This occasioned not a few marital squabbles, since the straight-laced and puritanical Junior considered modern art to be degenerate and scandalously uninhibited. To add insult to injury, Abby wanted to demolish their old home to make way for the museum. Nevertheless, Junior offered the requisite financial support for his wife’s project, and so the MoMA was born. It opened in 1929, just a few days after the financial crash (while Junior was busy dealing with Rockefeller Center); and this opening marks a watershed in the institutional acceptance of modern art.

Upon entering the MoMA, the visitor should go all the way to the top, the fifth floor (American style), and then work her way down. Nearly all of the museum’s most famous paintings are to be found in this gallery, so it is best to go with fresh eyes.

starry_night

Almost immediately you will find the most famous painting in the collection: Starry Night. Like La Gioconda in Paris or The Birth of Venus in Florence, Starry Night is always surrounded by a swarm of buzzing tourists. Predictably, this detracts from the viewing experience. Much of the pleasure of a great painting consists in minute observation; and this is doubly true of Van Gogh’s works, which are so thick with paint that they are nearly tactile. In any case, I need hardly say that Starry Night is one of the great images of Western Art, as instantly recognizable as Guernica or the Sistine Chapel ceiling. The swirls in the night sky have been as overanalyzed as Mona Lisa’s famous smile: as turbulent manifestations of the artist’s epileptic visions, or as a profound insight into the physics of nebular star formation, or as an allegorical representation of Christ.

While I think Starry Night is undeniably among Van Gogh’s best, I admit that overexposure has diminished my enjoyment of the painting. It is like hearing a song played one hundred times on the radio: even if it is a great song, it will lose interest eventually. In any case, the painting is exceptional in many respects. Unlike the majority of Van Gogh’s mature work (characterized by the artist’s strong commitment to observation), it contains several imaginative elements. For one, the village in the distance is an invention: it was not visible from his window at the monastery in which he was staying. More striking, the swirls in the sky seem to be a purely imaginative detail—not only invented, but fantastical. Are they clouds, wind, or a spiral galaxy? Nothing quite seems to fit, which is strange in a painter so obsessed with working from nature.

Starry_Night_Over_the_Rhone
Starry Night Over the Rhône

The final result is a painting whose effect is somewhat different from Van Gogh’s other mature work. The Starry Night Over the Rhône, for example, is typical of the artist in that, despite not being “realistic,” it evokes the sensation of an actual starry night. The Starry Night in the MoMA, however, evokes a quite different feeling: that of a cryptic, quasi-mystical utterance.

Another famous painting in this gallery is Henri Rousseau’s The Dream. It features a nude European woman reclining on a couch, in a reclining pose reminiscent of many European female nudes, such as Titian’s Venus of Urbino or Goya’s The Naked Maja. But she is not in a living room, but deep in the jungle, surrounded by exotic birds, tropical plants, two lions, and an African person playing the flute. The style is exaggerated and cartoonish, not exactly dreamlike but heavily stylized. The woman’s portrayal, for example, is almost Egyptian in its perspective: her body facing forward but her head entirely in profile, with both of her braids somehow in front of her chest. My favorite aspect of the painting are the large, hypnotic eyes of the lions, which serve to make the animals seem terrified rather than terrifying.

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However, I must admit that, on the whole, I do not find the painting terribly captivating to look at. I do appreciate it as a kind of satire of bourgeois dreams of the exotic: the gentile French woman, dozing in her salon, lost in daydreams of the lush forests of the Africa. And perhaps the snake tail sticking out from the bushes, and the fruit hanging on the tree above, tell us that this imaginary Eden is liable to implode when faced with actual knowledge.

Les_Demoiselles_d'Avignon

In the next room there are several works by Picasso, including what I consider to be, after Guernica, his greatest: Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. (In this case, Avignon refers to a street in Barcelona where prostitutes would congregate, not to the city in France.) It is a brutal, disturbing work. Picasso painted it in 1907, when he was still relatively obscure and was embroiled in a rivalry with the older Henri Matisse. At the time there was widespread interest in so-called “primitive” art, such as that of sub-Saharan Africa, Oceania, and pre-Roman Iberian sculpture. The painter Gauguin (who died in 1903) also contributed to this interest, since he had spent the last ten years of his life on the island of Tahiti, and had cultivated a “primitive” style in his late works. (This can be seen in Gauguin’s The Seed of Areoi, also at the MoMA.) Picasso combined this interest in the exotic with his admiration of Cézanne, whose daring landscapes pioneered the geometrical simplification that would become the basis of Picasso’s mature style. (The MoMA features several excellent works by Cézanne, including The Bather.)

The result is a painting utterly unlike any other in Western art. Five nude prostitutes gaze at the viewer, who is supposed to be a potential customer in their brothel. But there is not a hint of sensuality about these ladies of the night. Indeed, the extreme distortions of their bodies, and the mask-like form of their faces, transforms them into threatening monsters—particularly the two women on the right, whose faces bear the obvious influence of African art. The women have been literally objectified: reduced to distorted, two-dimensional placards. But the objectification turns them into objects of fear rather than desire; their curves are sharpened into knife-blades, their frontal gazes—traditionally a sign of invitation—are instead frightening blanks, devoid of any discernible emotion.

Compare this work with Matisse’s Le bonheur de vivre (The Joy of Life), completed just the year before; it shows us a colorful landscape full of voluptuous nudes, luxuriating in sensual pleasure. This is the ever-beguiling fantasy of sex. Picasso shows us the reality beneath the fantasy, the ugliness that we push into the shadows. For the relationship between the viewer as client, and the prostitutes gazing back, is dehumanizing for both parties. The women are visibly dehumanized—turned into thin masks, which perform their sexual function without pleasure or pain, without lust or hatred, but only a blank apathy. For his part, the client’s desire for sex becomes yet another financial transaction, performed mechanically—without enthusiasm and even without real desire—to fulfill mundane biological urges.

Perhaps I am reading too far into the painting, but for me the image represents the consequences of a repressive sexual morality: wherein a single man’s only opportunity for sex is the brothel, which in turn fuels a market that preys upon vulnerable women, pulling them into a cycle of poverty and abuse. Yet this is only one of an endless list of interpretations, as the helpless critic struggles to make sense of this pitiless image.

It was not a long way from these distorted forms to Picasso’s major breakthrough: cubism. Several cubist works of his hang nearby, as well as those of his partner in cubism, Georges Braque. I must admit that these works of “high” cubism always leave me cold: they are monochromatic and chaotic images, with at most the purely intellectual interest of a crossword puzzle. But there is no denying that cubism was the most influential movement of the period; through the painters’ experiments with perspective and abstraction, a new idiom was developed, a pictorial language that Picasso (among others) would later use to great effect.

Not far from here is a room mostly dedicated to works by Marcel Duchamp. Now, Duchamp is one of the most influential figures in 20th century art; in his program, The Shock of the New, Robert Hughes dedicates ample time to his work, and most of what he says is quite positive. For my part, I have been unable to penetrate this artist’s work, in part because he seems to represent what I generally dislike about modern art: namely, its abandonment of aesthetic qualities for intellectual games or self-involved irony.

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An example of this is his piece To Be Looked at (From the Other Side of the Glass) with One Eye, Close to, for Almost an Hour. It consists of two panes of glass with a magnifying lens mounted in the middle. On the glass is a geometrical design of a three-dimensional pyramid. The glass was unintentionally cracked during transport, which greatly appealed to Duchamp’s sense of random creation. I can see that the piece is a sort of ironic comment on science and perspective; the design and the lens suggest the meticulous representation of space, and yet it is a mere parody—the image through the lens is distorted and fuzzy. It is also a sort of ironic comment on the act of seeing in a gallery, since the viewer must dedicate a frankly unrealistic amount of time to experience the visual distortions induced by the lens. In other words, the whole point of this work, which uses symbols of seeing scientifically, is to see badly. Yet is it interesting to look at?

Another example of Duchamp’s work is Three Standard Stoppages. He made this by dropping a meter-long thread onto sheets of glass, so they it fell in haphazard shapes, and then gluing the threads to the glass. Afterwards, he made wooden “rulers” (whose length is less than a meter, since the thread is curved) using these shapes. The idea (or so the MoMA audioguide explains) is to show the arbitrariness and the boringness of the standard meter, as opposed to the spontaneous naturalness of these shapes. This is a fine idea; but again I do not see the point of creating a work of art which only serves as the prop for an argument. I remain old-fashioned enough to think that it should be beautiful in itself; this is one of my many intellectual shortcomings.

De_Chirico's_Love_Song

A room nearby is dedicated to the work of Giorgio de Chirico. Indeed, the MoMA has perhaps the world’s greatest collection of this elusive artist’s work, including his most famous painting: The Song of Love. Like so many of Chirico’s paintings, it is a baffling image: a rubber glove hangs from a wall, next to a beautiful antique bust (of Apollo?), with a green ball on the ground in front—all of this in a cartoonish urban landscape. Like many, I can only hazard a guess of what this all means. I suppose that the powerful juxtaposition of the bust and the rubber glove is suggestive of different interpretations of the human body—one a unique idealized image, another a prefabricated utilitarian object—indicative of the many cultural manifestations of the same underlying reality. But, really, whatever interpretation we choose to impose, the image persists; and it is memorable.

La_danse_(I)_by_Matisse

Another memorable image is Dance (1) by Henri Matisse. The work in the possession of the MoMA is a preliminary work for a decorative panel in the Heritage Museum, Saint Petersburg. If you keep in mind that this naive image was created in 1909, you can get an idea of how revolutionary it must have been. For there is not a hint of realism in the work; not only do the figures lack detail, but their postures are impossible—anatomically and perspectively. The landscape consists of two blobs of color, slashed across the canvass. And yet it is an utterly convincing image of joyous celebration. The freedom from realism is transformed into a freedom of all restraint, a kind of basic delight in movement and release. The painting is also a convincing demonstration that childlike can produce lasting art.

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I have a much more negative opinion of another so-called childish piece in the collection, White on White, by Kazimir Malevich. Malevich was the creator of the Suprematist movement, which emphasized the use of basic geometrical shapes—squares, circles, lines, and so on—with a black-and-white color scheme. White on White consists of an off-white square positioned diagonally in a white canvass. Neither this painting nor any other of the Suprematist works on display produce even the slightest iota of emotion in me; they are not visually interesting or intellectually stimulating.

But I should not pause to cast aspersion, but should dwell on the paintings that I do like. Among these is, naturally, Claude Monet’s wonderful painting of water lilies, stretched out on an enormous canvass (well, actually three canvasses). In the later part of his life, Monet retreated into his own estate; here following Voltaire’s advice, he cultivated his own garden. This became his artistic haven, where he would sit for hours, working. The most famous and stunning results of this aesthetic quest are these enormous representations of the surface of his lily pond. (Monet made several of these; most are collected in the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris.) The work is unmoderated aesthetic bliss: the swirling colors are so inherently peaceful and pleasant that they induce a sort of meditation, an artistic absorption in color and light.

waterlilies_monet_moma

I see that I am rattling on and on, as I tend to do, so I will restrict myself to two more paintings. But be advised that this list is only representative of my tastes, and does not adequately reflect the wealth of beauty on display.

As a somewhat begrudging fan of Dalí, I was delighted to finally see his Persistence of Memory. This image is so famous that it requires no description. Nevertheless, I think it is worth pausing to savor this painting’s brilliance. For no painting I know is such a convincing depiction of time. Contrast this work with another whose subject is time: The Ages and Death, by Hans Baldung. This painting, which hands in the Prado, represents time by showing its effect on the female body. It is an exceptional painting, well executed and well conceived; but it has none of the haunting power of Dalí’s work. For here time itself ages—it melts and droops pathetically. In Baldung time is universal, inescapable, and adamantine; but for Dalí time itself takes place in a larger environment—that suggested by the rocky landscape—and is itself subject to change. This leads us to ask: what is ultimate, after all?

pollock_moma

The last painting I will mention is Jackson Pollock’s One: Number 31, 1950. Admittedly, giving the name of a certain Pollock seems silly, since I at least would be at a complete loss to pick one out of a slideshow. Nevertheless I do want to single out this painting, and Pollock’s work generally, for its extraordinary energy. Though superficially random, any amount of inspection will reveal that, in fact, Pollock exerted an extreme level of control over his paint drippings. The result is a sort of explosion of human movement, an exploration of gesture, a kind of visual dance, where the overlapping colors create a rhythmic sensation, and the blobs of paint sticking out of the canvass make it nearly tactile.

If she is at all like me, the visitor will be quite exhausted by the end of this gallery. Yet this floor, although it contains the majority of the MoMA’s most famous works, is only a small fraction of its total exhibitions. On the next floor down are the more contemporary works, from 1940 to 1980. I will pass over this gallery in silence since, for me, visual art after the Second World War is hit or miss—and usually the latter. Below this, on the third floor, is a rotating special exhibition on architecture. When I went last year it was a fascinating exposition dedicated to Frank Lloyd Wright; this year it is dedicated to communist Yugoslavian architecture. On the second floor (European first floor) the collection continues from 1980 up to the present. Finally, on the ground floor is the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller sculpture garden, a peaceful place full of bizarre statues, plants, and benches, which is perfect for having a short rest.

This does it for my virtual tour of the MoMA. It is well worth a visit, not only because of its wonderful collection, but because it is one of the most significant institutions that governed artistic taste in the 20th century. Next, I will examine a museum founded by Abby Aldrich’s conservative husband: the Cloisters.