Culture //

Letter from New York: the Met

On a hot New York afternoon, Madeleine King took refuge in the coolness of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City. [Photo: The Lost Wonderer, licensed under CC BY 2.0]
New York, heat wave, high summer. The shade of Central Park is deceptively hot and so the refuge of choice for every tourist and local in the city is something New York has in spades: art galleries. Their temperate climates, tuned for the preservation of the world’s most important cultural artefacts, are appreciated by visitors alike. It’s a particularly hot day, so we’ve chosen the biggest museum for maximum exposure to air conditioning: The Metropolitan Museum of Art (affectionately, The Met).

While the Guggenheim, MoMA (Museum of Modern Art), The Frick and The Whitney were easy contenders, The Met takes the crown of New York’s (nay, America’s) art institutions. Rivalled only by the Louvre, a day’s visit barely scratches the surface. So one does not simply review The Met in its entirety. A more sound critical response would perhaps be to review rooms individually. Which would then take a number of years, given its two million-object collection. Perhaps sections would be better? Just 23 weeks.

We tackled the ground floor first. Or rather, glided through light-filled, cavernous halls of Roman and Greek sculptures and pottery; rooms of pristinely preserved mummies that spilled out into a glass-ceilinged room, twice the size of the Great Hall, in which was housed the entire ancient Egyptian Temple of Dendur. It was salvaged by the Americans in a socio-political gesture when the Russian-funded construction of the Aswan Dam threatened to flood the site during the fifties. Such things were done in those days, the golden age of American philanthropy.

Two corridors later (past the façade of an 19th century American manor house) we were in the Medieval wing, standing in a transported Gothic cathedral, then a hall with fully suited knights on horses, then amidst the glittering jewels of Catholic ceremonial excess. It was all a series of glimpses into other galleries, ones we knew it would be folly to walk into. The ultimate labyrinth of history, where one wrong turn means the loss of all historical and artistic continuity, into a new century, a new art movement.

Upstairs I felt we were powering well through the European painting section (18th – 20th century) until we reached the consecutive rooms of Rembrandts, Monets, and Cezannes. Whether the glint of a ring or fine jewellery on fur, the light of a Cote d’Azur afternoon still shone centuries later.

We dragged ourselves to the rooftop bar and thawed out in the heat with a drink, overlooking the New York skyline and leafy rooftop of Central Park. My mum, an art teacher, has a Met membership and it afforded us a well-earned lunch in the member’s dining room on the 6th floor. If you know a member, take them along or borrow their card for an exceptionally well-priced multicourse meal overlooking the Park, including cocktails.

We wandered hazily in the late afternoon back through the exhibits we hadn’t reached. People around us were, literally, asleep on the couches, defeated by the museum and its therapeutic (hypothermic?) air conditioning.

How do you give an impression of a museum so vast, of such grandeur and scope, in 500 words? The Met is, quite simply, a physical history of humanity’s devotion to beautiful things. A crime to miss if you’re in the city.