Making The Met: 1870-2020

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, one of the United States' premier art institutions, was weeks away from unveiling their Sesquicentennial anniversary exhibition - and then, Covid-19 happened. "Making The Met: 1870-2020" became one of the institution's most anticipated exhibitions since they could not receive visitors for over five months. I bided my time waiting for The Met to reopen by partaking in some virtual programming related to the exhibition. Some of the #MuseumFromHome highlights included an interactive online tour of the museum's 150-year history and events such as "The Observant Eye," where dozens of guests joined Assistant Museum Educator, Dr. Elizabeth Perkins, in a close look at Faith Ringgold's Street Story Quilt. On August 14th, The Met announced that it would reopen to visitors later that month, and I immediately logged on to their website to reserve my timed slot. 

The Met is not the same museum I remember visiting last spring. For starters, it has new hours, and visitors are also required to get their temperature checked, utilize a timed entry, and wear a mask at all times. All that aside, I felt like I had the entire institution to myself on a Thursday afternoon. Upon arrival, I made my way to Gallery 899. Guests are greeted by text which reads, "The exhibition explores pivotal moments in the history of The Met, and we unexpectedly found ourselves in the midst of another…" Curators not only reacted to the pandemic but also touched on how the exhibition contained new and expanded labels in response to the Black Lives Matter protests. The overarching goals of Making The Met are to highlight the men and women who left a lasting impact on the institution, to celebrate the art and artifacts it acquired in its collection over the years, and reflect on the museum's role in society today.

Each of the galleries chronologically presents a glimpse at the people and art that shaped The Met in ten episodes. Essentially, the curators constructed little portals into the museum's past-life. If you peak your head through the doorway into the adjacent hallway, you can view flickering images of museum visitors from the past, and your view might become obstructed by a guest from the present. Steve Martin narrates the blockbuster audio guide, which analyses pieces on view, and contains archival and contemporary clips from curators to walk you through the exhibition.

Rotating projector in hallway at Making The Met
PHOTOGRAPH BY Mary Manfredi

A trip to Making The Met enabled me to learn more about the institution's legacy in the United States and around the globe. As I passed through each room, I noted how the museum's acquisitions, and by extension, their collections grew over the past 150 years. When the museum was established in 1870, it did not have a building, art to display, or professional staff. But as I progressed through each of the galleries, I saw The Met that I have come to know and appreciate over the past few years take shape. With the help of incredible staff, excavations, and friends of museums, The Met has grown to occupy over 2 million square feet, house 1.5 million objects, and employ over 1,600 talented men and women.

Seated statue of Hatshepsut with corresponding Conservator Story Label which details its arrival to The Met in several fragments and multiple restorations in Making The Met.
PHOTOGRAPH BY Mary Manfredi

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the exhibition. It enabled me to see over 250 works of art in a new setting and view them under the context of their arrival at the museum. The exhibit labels showcased a variety of information, ranging from a particular artist's or benefactor's association with the museum, an exhibition a painting was featured in, and lesser-known facts relating to the works. I came across several "Conservation Story" blurbs that highlighted the efforts of the conservation department (both past and present) and shed light on the life cycle of certain objects.

As I strolled through the final gallery, the "tenth moment," I came face to face with Faith Ringgold's Street Story Quilt. I remembered examining this piece from my living room in one of their #MuseumFromHome programs. My eyes darted towards specific corners and sections that I remembered from the lecture. Staring up at this piece made me realize how much I had missed The Met, in-person. Sure, it’s enticing to zoom in on an artwork from the comfort of your own home, but it does not replace the awe-inspiring sensation of standing in front of a work of art, not a reproduction. I would strongly recommend that anyone who feels comfortable enough to venture out to the museum and get lost in Making The Met. You will run into some familiar faces hanging on the walls and maybe learn something new about other prominent pieces in the collection. For me, I left with a newfound appreciation for the men and women who persevered despite a global pandemic to continue to safely inspire art lovers. The museum is in a celebratory mood, all year long with paintings gifted in honor of the anniversary, new merchandise, and continuous in-person and virtual programming revolving around the exhibition. Although I had to wait five months to reenter, I am thrilled that I got to make it to Making The Met.

Faith Ringold, Street Story Quilt, Making The Met
PHOTOGRAPH BY Mary Manfredi

Bibliography:

Visitor Guidelines.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 2020.

Weintraub, Karen. “Behind the Scenes at The Metropolitan Museum of Art: What Does It Take to Reopen a National Landmark?” USA Today. Aug. 27, 2020.

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Mary Manfredi

Mary Manfredi is a recent graduate from Villanova University's Master's in Public History program. Born and raised in Monmouth County, New Jersey, she grew up surrounded by Revolutionary War history and Bruce Springsteen. Her research interests revolve around American material and visual culture. She also runs, "Mary's Musings," a space where she shares her thoughts about museums, art, and history.