In 1866, a group of businessmen and civic leaders launched the Metropolitan Museum of Art as a concept without a work of art to its name. The New York City cultural institution only acquired its first artifact—a third-century A.D. Roman marble sarcophagus decorated with intricately carved garlands—four years later, in 1870.
From this initial acquisition, the Met’s palatial Fifth Avenue collection grew to house thousands of objects, becoming an internationally renowned trove of cultural heritage that attracts more than seven million visitors each year. Now, an exhibition titled “Making the Met: 1870–2020” commemorates the museum’s 150th birthday by charting its history—and the broader history of Western art collection—from the end of the American Civil War to the present day.
Visitors planning to make the trek in person must purchase timed-entry tickets online. For those hoping to participate from home, the museum is also offering a slate of virtual offerings: Art lovers can listen to an hour-long audio tour of some of the exhibition’s highlights, as narrated by actor Steve Martin; explore an interactive online version of the show; or take a virtual walkthrough courtesy of Google Arts and Culture.
Those interested in the museum’s behind-the-scenes history can also browse seven stories about the conservation of the Met’s most iconic works or watch a short documentary on the museum’s iconic Fifth Avenue architecture. Another option is viewing rarely seen footage from Behind the Scenes: The Working Side of the Museum, a silent 1928 documentary that depicts janitors dusting works and curators arranging exhibitions.
Per a statement, the exhibition’s 250 objects are presented roughly in the order that they entered the museum’s collections. Taken together, the items offer a history of the Met’s collecting habits and values, as well as what the New York Times’ Jason Farago describes as “strange, riveting juxtapositions” of artwork from various time periods and parts of the world.
The show’s ten sections outline moments of great change for the museum, from its earliest decades to its role in World War II and sometimes-reluctant embrace of modernism in the 20th century. Visitor favorites and fragile pieces that can only be displayed on rare occasions number among the featured works, which span all eras, mediums and artistic concerns.
Among others, the list of selected artifacts includes a seated statue of the female Egyptian pharaoh Hatshepsut, Edgar Degas’ bronze Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer, Edward J. Steichen’s photographs of The Flatiron and contemporary works such as El Anatsui’s large-scale Dusasa II (2007).
“Making the Met” tracks key figures involved in shaping and curating the museum’s collections over the decades, from Luigi Palma di Cesnola, the Italian-American and archaeology enthusiast who became the Met’s first director in 1879, to the Met’s first woman curator (and first curator of musical instruments), Frances Morris.
Also featured are the Monuments Men—a group of men and women who worked to preserve art looted by the Nazis during World War II—and curators who pushed the often-conservative Met to embrace contemporary art. One such individual, Lowery Stokes Sims, acquired genre-bending works like Faith Ringgold’s Street Story Quilt during the 1990s.
As Sarah Cascone reports for artnet News, the exhibition ends on a cliffhanger: the Covid-19 pandemic and its devastating fallout for cultural institutions, many of which were forced to shutter for months. Ahead of its August 20 reopening, the Met cut its staff by 20 percent and projected an estimated $150 million loss in annual revenue, according to the Times’ Julia Jacobs.
“We’re going to look at this exhibition through new and different eyes now,” curator Andrea Bayer, deputy director for collections and administration, tells artnet News. “We give you 10 moments, but we’re living in the 11th. This has made us reflect on who we are, where we are, and where we are going.”
One highlight of “Making the Met” is Saint Rosalie Interceding for the Plague-stricken of Palermo, a 1624 painting by Anthony van Dyck that was one of the first works to enter the Met’s collections. As Farago wrote for the Times in March, the work—which depicts Saint Rosalie, who was thought to have saved the Italian city of Palermo from a plague during the 17th century—takes on added resonance amid the current pandemic.
The museum reopened this summer in the wake of a worldwide push for racial justice spurred in part by the police killing of Minnesota man George Floyd. In the weeks following Floyd’s May 25 death, many cultural institutions—including the Met—faced reckonings with their own complicity in sustaining structural racism.
Max Hollein, the Met’s director, responded to controversy over allegations of racism at the museum in a June statement to the Times’ Robin Pogrebin.
“There is no doubt that the Met and its development [are] also connected with a logic of what is defined as white supremacy,” he said. “Our ongoing efforts to not only diversify our collection but also our programs, narratives, contexts and staff will be further accelerated and will benefit in urgency and impact from this time.”
As Farago notes in his review of the show, much of the history of the Met’s collections hinges on the stories of individual wealthy patrons, from the moneyed elite of the American Gilded Age to present-day multi-millionaires. The exhibition doesn’t shy away from examining some of the museum’s own ties to imperialist exploitation: A section titled “Visions of Collecting,” for instance, details how the Havemayers, who donated celebrated collections of 19th century French artists and others to the museum, built their fortune through the exploitation of immigrant workers in sugar manufacturing factories. According to Eric Zafran of the Burlington magazine, “How other collector-donors attained their wealth is not detailed.”
In the statement, Bayer notes that the museum’s efforts to investigate its own history are ongoing.
“In these past months, as we have lived through a period of important societal transformation, we recognize that we must add another story to this history,” she says. “While in some cases we reflect with pride, and in others we acknowledge our place within fraught histories, the exhibition shows how The Met has always strived to educate and inspire the public.”
“Making the Met: 1870–2020” is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City through January 3, 2021.