American Renaissance At The Met

07/31/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Nicolaus Mills Professor of American Studies, Sarah Lawrence College

In 1980 the Metropolitan Museum of Art opened its new American Wing to rave reviews. Any why not? The 1980 wing featured the spectacular glass-enclosed, glass-roofed Charles Engelhard Court and had 130,000 square feet of exhibition space -- more room than many museums have for their entire collections.

Since 1980, the Met's American collection has acquired 3,400 new works, and thanks to a $100 million project to renovate and reconfigure its American Wing, there is a lot more to see than there was 29 years ago. This May, in a ceremony presided over by Michelle Obama, the Met opened a series of new period rooms, plus a renovated Charles Englehard Court, and next year the entire American Wing will be accessible to the public.

The period rooms are a big improvement. It is now possible to move through them in chronological order, going from a 1680 Puritan home from Ipswich, Massachusetts, to the living room that Franklin Lloyd Wright designed between 1912 and 1914 for the Frances Little summer house in Wayzata, Minnesota. The period rooms, which have been repainted, have fiber-optic lighting that makes seeing the furniture in them easier, and they come with touch screens that are convenient to operate but not so overloaded with information that they are a distraction.

But the most visible change in the Met's American Wing is the Engelhard Court, which now, as before, is dominated by the Greek Revival limestone façade of Martin E. Thompson's 1822 Branch Bank of the United States. The court has added a mezzanine balcony and reconfigured its ground floor, which in the past had much of its sculpture surrounded by plantings. The plantings have been removed, and with 30 percent more space for display, the Met has not wasted an inch. It has placed 60 pieces of sculpture, mosaics, and architectural elements on the court's ground floor.

The results are often spectacular. In the absence of the plantings it is now possible to get within a foot or two of Augustus Saint-Gaudens dazzling gilt bronze "Diana," and there is room near Thompson's bank façade for two monumental French-style lamps designed by Richard Hunt Morris in 1902 for the Met's entrance.

But there are also drawbacks to the reconfigured Engelhard Court. Morris's lamps blend in perfectly, but the same cannot be said for a massive limestone pulpit and choir rail from All Angels Church that was carved by Karl Bitters, best known to New Yorkers for the fountain in front of the Plaza Hotel. The pulpit simply dwarfs everything around it. Its religious implications have become a second thought without a context to emphasize them.

The same problems hold for the crowded glass display cases on the Engelhard Court's upper floors. A friend commented that she expected to see price tags next to the items they displayed. She wasn't being completely sarcastic. In its desire to make more of its collection available to the museumgoer, the Met has adopted a department-store aesthetic in the way it has arranged its American holdings. That choice is not enough to make anyone wish the Met had kept more items in storage, but it is a choice that comes with a visual price. The spacious feel of the original Engelhard Court is gone. Even the large-scale sculpture in the court now competes for our attention with whatever stands next to it.

Nicolaus Mills is a professor of American Studies at Sarah Lawrence College and co-editor with Michael Walzer of the forthcoming collection, Getting Out: Historical Perspectives on Leaving Iraq.