PRINT May 2007

US News

Natalie Kampen on the new Greek and Roman galleries at the Metropolitan Museum

FOLLOWING A FIVE-YEAR construction project (and a decade of planning before that), the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has opened its new Greek and Roman galleries with refashioned spaces and displays that will no doubt spark some debate, comprising as they do a complex balancing act of scholarly, aesthetic, and educational missions set within the larger framework of American museum economics and collecting. Indeed, one hopes that the reinstallation and renaming of the spaces—for donors to the collection as well as those who financed the renovations—will inspire an extended discussion, as the occasion offers a chance to consider anew both the history of this collection and the collecting of antiquities in general.

The museum’s holdings are now on view as never before, with thousands of works that were previously in long-term storage given more square footage and better light than was possible in the old galleries. In most areas, and particularly in the spaces running between Fifth Avenue and the great glass-roofed atrium, the viewer finds a combination of sculpture and painting, ceramic and metal vessels and ritual objects, furniture and glassware. This array both affords visitors a sense of the changing visual culture of the ancient Mediterranean region and enlivens with brilliant splashes of color rooms that might otherwise be dominated by the white marble of statuary.

A series of questions emerges when one visits the installations. A crucial one is whether a museum is obliged, given the expense of installation, to show as much material as possible rather than rotating pieces and exhibiting fewer, in less crowded conditions, at any one time. Here, problems regarding the aesthetic needs of viewers—as opposed to the research interests of educators and scholars—seem to grow out of the very depth and complexity of the Met’s Hellenistic, Etruscan, and Roman collections: Simply put, because of the richness of the museum’s resources, some of the new galleries feel crowded. This is especially a problem in the inventively constructed Etruscan gallery, which lies on a mezzanine that was previously used as office space. One feels that the room is surprisingly open given its low ceiling, but one never loses the sense of many, many things occupying the space. This situation may well result from the huge costs involved with rotating parts of the collection.

In contrast, the galleries on the first floor along Fifth Avenue feel neither crowded nor fussy, in large measure because of the elegant way the long, narrow space has been divided. Two small freestanding rooms, reconstructing interiors from great villas, contain splendid, elegant frescoes. The succession of galleries creates a chronological movement from the Roman Republic, where stress is placed on the impact of Hellenistic art on the Romans, to the middle section with its early Imperial material, and then to the end galleries where one finds later Roman objects. The arrangement is aesthetically satisfying and pedagogically useful, and one comes away with a sense of interesting material that is also profoundly beautiful.

That these needs can be met so elegantly without stinting on the range and quantity of objects available for study suggests the fundamental role architecture plays in the success of any museum installation—something readily apparent as well in the far more conservatively designed grand atrium, which feels very much a logical extension of the building facade and entrance core. This space, built by McKim, Mead and White between 1912 and 1926, was the original location of the Met’s Greek and Roman collections but was then turned into a restaurant and cafeteria. Newly reinstalled, the objects under the great, high glass ceiling are mostly white, ideal sculptures of gods and personifications, which are sometimes a little lost in the expanse of space and on the lively floor of patterned and colored marble. This section feels very traditional in its evocation of a Roman villa, although the installation uses large sarcophagi and objects of colored stone along with bronzes to help structure the space and make it more comprehensible. Foregrounding classicism, the atrium gallery allows viewers to think about the diversity of Roman taste and Roman appropriations of the Greek past. Whether viewers will be able to engage with these issues, given the busy feel of the space, remains to be seen. Coming upon pieces that one hadn’t even known were in the collection—such as a wonderful marble shield-form funerary relief dating from the late second to third century AD, displayed in the side gallery—is far easier where one has a less densely packed field of vision.

Of course, this very problem points in some ways to potential, and perhaps even provides the basis for that further discussion I mentioned above: The new galleries make it clear that the Met could easily cease all acquisitions and present just its own material for the next few centuries, so deep is the collection. Combining its own works with loans associated with repatriation agreements and with museum funding for excavations would subsequently keep the collection fresh and exciting without generating problems connected to new purchases and gifts of objects from collectors (a significant advantage, in light of current deliberations between the Italian government and a number of US museums and private collectors). And the latter point is all-important: Given that American museums, unlike their counterparts elsewhere in the world, depend heavily on the generosity of private donors, negotiating the funding for a huge building campaign such as this one might become less fraught by ethical questions if the acquisition of antiquities and the display of material from private collections ceased to play major roles in the museum.

Natalie Kampen is a professor of art history and women’s studies at Barnard College, Columbia University, New York.