Exhibition To Watch in 2020: Making The Met, 1870–2020

In 2020, The Metropolitan Museum of Art will celebrate the 150th anniversary of its founding with a dynamic range of exhibitions, programs, and public events. Highlights of the year will include the exhibition Making The Met, 1870–2020, on view March 30–August 2; the opening of the newly renovated and reimagined galleries devoted to British decorative arts and design in March; the display of new gifts throughout the Museum; a three-day-long celebration in June; and a story-collecting initiative. (More information is available at www.metmuseum.org/150.)

The centerpiece of The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 150th anniversary celebration will be the exhibition Making The Met, 1870–2020. On view March 30–August 2, 2020 in the Second Floor Tisch Galleries, the presentation is a museum-wide collaboration that will lead visitors on an immersive, thought-provoking journey through The Met’s history. Organized around transformational moments in the evolution of the Museum’s collection, buildings, and ambitions, the exhibition will reveal the visionary figures and cultural forces that propelled The Met in new directions, from its founding in 1870 to the present day.

Making The Met, 1870–2020 is made possible by the Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Foundation. Lead corporate sponsorship is provided by Bank of America.

The exhibition will feature more than 250 works of art of nearly every type from The Met collection, including visitor favorites and fragile treasures that can only be displayed from time to time. The selection will span millennia—from an imposing seated statue of the Egyptian queen Hatshepsut (ca. 1479–1458 B.C.) to Jean Pucelle’s Hours of Jeanne d’Evreux (ca. 1324–28) to El Anatsui’s monumental Dusasa II (2007)—and media—from Michelangelo’s sheet of Studies for the Libyan Sibyl to Degas’s bronze Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer to Edward Steichen’s photographs of The Flatiron. Its global reach will extend from Asia, with exceptional works such as Mi Fu’s Night-Shining White, to Africa, with the Fang Seated Female Figure from a Reliquary Ensemble, and the Americas, with the Crown of the Andes.

Making The Met, 1870–2020 will explore a range of intriguing topics, such as the educational and aspirational ideals of The Met’s founders; the discoveries and dilemmas of excavation; the competing forces of progressivism and nationalism that led to the founding of the American Wing; the role of the Museum during wartime; and the evolution at The Met’s centennial toward a truly global approach to collecting. Rarely seen archival photographs, innovative digital features, and stories of both behind-the-scenes work and the Museum’s community outreach will enhance this unique experience.

Young 19th- and 21st-century viewers gaze at Washington Crossing the Delaware, 1851, by Emanuel Leutze. Left: Archival photo from The Met archives. Right: Photo by Roderick Aichinger. Composite image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Exhibition Overview

The exhibition will be organized in ten chronological sections around a central axis, called The Street, that will situate visitors in time and offer glimpses into the inner workings of The Met and, exceptionally, out into Central Park.

The first section, The Founding Decades, will transport visitors back to the Museum’s early years. The Met was founded without art, a building, or professional staff—it had only the vision of a group of businessmen, civic leaders, and artists determined to elevate the cultural landscape of the city of New York. This gallery will reveal the initial priorities for the collection, including antiquities excavated from Cyprus by The Met’s first director, General Luigi Palma di Cesnola, and European old master paintings from the founding purchase of 1871. It will also call attention to the contributions of artist trustees, such as Frederic Edwin Church, and the surprising diversity of early acquisitions, from Toltec reliefs to Japanese armor.

In the early 20th century, The Met sought to reach audiences beyond the traditional elite museumgoers and created study rooms to inspire a new generation of designers, craftspeople, and students. In keeping with an increasingly encyclopedic vision for the collection, ephemeral and utilitarian objects were acquired in addition to masterpieces. The exhibition’s second gallery, Art for All, will spotlight three collections—musical instruments, textiles, and prints and drawings—and the visionary curators, Frances Morris and William Ivins, who oversaw them.

In the same era, under the guiding influence of J. Pierpont Morgan, president of the Board of Trustees, The Met began to aspire to the model of the great collections formed by European royalty and aristocracy. Princely Aspirations will feature objects prized for their rarity and beauty that were given to the Museum by tycoons of the Gilded Age, such as Benjamin Altman and Collis Huntington. Highlights include Johannes Vermeer’s Young Woman with a Lute, Antonio Rossellino’s Madonna and Child with Angels, 18th-century decorative arts that once adorned French palaces, and a Kunstkammer of precious objects. This section will look ahead to more recent benefactors, such as Robert Lehman and Charles and Jayne Wrightsman, who carried forward this spirit of collecting.

The Met has sponsored excavations since 1906, beginning in Egypt and then the Middle East, as a means of studying and collecting objects from the ancient and medieval worlds. Collecting through Excavation will concentrate on the 1920s and 1930s, when a policy of “partage” allowed the Museum to retain a portion of the excavated material, significantly expanding its archaeological holdings. The statue of Hatshepsut, and its fascinating history of destruction and restoration, will anchor this gallery as one of the great discoveries. The gallery will also examine how, in recent decades, The Met’s excavation activities have focused more intently on research and preservation.

Creating a National Narrative will highlight the years leading up to the opening of the American Wing in 1924, spearheaded by patrons Robert and Emily de Forest. Beginning around 1905, the Museum’s strategic program of collecting American paintings, sculpture, and decorative arts established a canon of good taste for the public. It also promoted a vision of what it meant to be American at the height of European immigration and the country’s ascendance to global power. Works in this section will range from a silver teapot by Paul Revere to Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s gilded statuette Victory and John Singer Sargent’s iconic portrait of Madame X.

In 1929, the bequest of nearly 2,000 objects from Louisine and Henry Osborne Havemeyer introduced new diversity to the Museum’s holdings of European, American, Asian, and Islamic art, reflecting the couple’s unique taste inspired by close relationships with contemporary artists. A Vision of Collecting will reveal how the Havemeyers’ pioneering collection of works by Degas, Manet, Courbet, Cassatt, Monet, and Cézanne broke through hidebound ideas of French art to elevate the Museum to one of the world’s premier destinations for 19th-century art. These works will be seen alongside non-Western and decorative art given by the Havemeyers and their descendants and paintings given by other outstanding collectors, like Walter and Leonore Annenberg, who acquired Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art with equally discerning eyes.

Although The Met has grappled with how to collect and display contemporary art at various points in its history, in the 1920s and 1930s the Museum embarked on an ambitious program of acquisitions, exhibitions, and commercial interventions in the field of contemporary decorative arts and design. Around the same time, Alfred Stieglitz invigorated the Museum’s engagement with modern art through two landmark donations of photography and his subsequent bequest of American and European modernist painting, sculpture, and works on paper. Reckoning with Modernism will delve into both The Met’s accomplishments and missed opportunities in this area. It will also demonstrate how later major gifts—notably from Leonard A. Lauder—have tremendously enhanced The Met’s modern collections. The gallery will feature works by Pablo Picasso, Georgia O’Keeffe, Constantin Brancusi, Charles Demuth, Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann, Edward J. Steichen, Gertrude Käsebier, and others.

Fragmented Histories will center on two remarkable stories about the impact of the Second World War on The Met and the ethics of collecting during times of war. The first story will relate the contributions of Museum staff to the heroic efforts of the so-called monuments men and women, who sought to safeguard the cultural treasures of Europe, and how their wartime activities influenced the development of The Met’s collection, particularly the acquisition of exquisite medieval artworks. The second story will present the complex history of a set of Syrian reliefs excavated by German national Max von Oppenheim. Most of the reliefs were destroyed in the 1943 Allied bombing of Berlin, while a small group brought to the U.S. were seized by the government and sold at auction to the Museum.

The Met’s centennial in 1970 was celebrated with great fanfare and marked by reflection on the Museum’s past, present, and future. The institution rededicated itself to its encyclopedic mission with a greater commitment to non-Western and contemporary art, while a new master plan laid the groundwork to accommodate the expanding collection. The Centennial Era will look at then state-of-the-art installations of Islamic art; the arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas; Asian art; and 20th-century art. It will also explore how living artists during this period played an essential role in making The Met a vibrant and responsive institution through celebration, performance, and protest.

The exhibition will culminate in a display of outstanding acquisitions from the last three decades that represent curatorial initiatives to expand the global reach of the collection and reconsider categories of art overlooked by previous generations. Broadening Perspectives will highlight the vision for the future of the Museum set forth by Director Max Hollein, wherein works of art are presented in rich contextual narratives in order to reveal complex social, political, and historical forces and the interconnectivity of cultures.

Credits and Related Content

Making The Met, 1870–2020 is organized by Andrea Bayer, Deputy Director for Collections and Administration, with Laura D. Corey, Senior Research Associate, and an advisory committee of curators, conservators, educators, and archivists.

The exhibition will be accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue with essays by Met curators and contributors from across the Museum. The book is published by The Metropolitan Museum of Art and distributed by Yale University Press. It will be available in The Met Store.

The catalogue is made possible by the Diane W. and James E. Burke Fund, The Peter Jay Sharp Foundation, and the Doris Duke Fund for Publications.

Related programming will include multiple lecture series and performances linked to the 150th anniversary celebration; details forthcoming.

The exhibition will be featured on The Met website as well as on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter using the hashtags #MakingTheMet and #Met150. More information about The Met’s 150th anniversary is available at www.metmuseum.org/150.