The museums of New York City sprung out of wealth and curiosity, but few of their turn-of-the-century boosters were quite so eccentric or prolific as Bashford Dean. The expert in both fish and armor — and armored fish — was the major proponent and collector behind the Arms and Armor Department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
To celebrate both the centennial of the department and its adventurous founder, the museum opened Bashford Dean and the Creation of the Arms and Armor Department in 2012. It was originally only planned to go until last fall but has been extended through this year, and it’s worth stopping by the small show tucked in a gallery just outside the main armament displays. Not that any one artifact is going to compete with any on permanent display, except the character that was Bashford Dean.
Dean started collecting armor as a child, but his first academic love was fishes. At Columbia University he studied both paleontology and zoology, especially intrigued by those ancient fishes with flesh that seemed born for battle. He soon became a professor at the university and started to travel, and while that would be achievement enough he branched out into a full obsession with Japan, especially its military history. Soon he had the most impressive Japanese armor collection outside of Asia, and this transitioned into an extensive delve into the whole history of military protection that entailed the building of a whole display hall at his home of Wave Hill. Eventually in 1912 he became the first curator of arms and armor at the Metropolitan Museum, in addition to already being a curator of fishes at the American Museum of Natural History. He’s still the only person to have held curatorial positions at both places simultaneously.
The exhibition is pegged with strange artifacts like a helmet for a horse that has a curved nose like the snarl of some strange dragon, and helmets that look a bit like a retro-tech Robocop — World War I prototypes designed by Dean that unfortunately resembled a bit too closely those of the Germans. Yet while the centerpiece is without a doubt the imposing Japanese Edo period armor in a case — alongside a photograph of Dean decked out in it — you just have to walk around the corner to see the real legacy of Dean. The permanent display of armor at the Metropolitan Museum is still one of the most fascinating exhibitions in the place, not just with the knights on horses striding past Henry VIII’s armor, from both before and after he got fat, but for the incredibly ornate detail on what was essentially a uniform for drawing blood.
It’s additionally interesting to examine the collection of the Metropolitan Museum in light of the Higgins Armory Museum closing for good on December 31. Armor just doesn’t have the same draw as when it was a major collector’s piece for the elite of New York City, always stained a bit with the nostalgia of brutal wars. Aside from those strange WWI prototypes in the Bashford Dean show, the arms exhibition cuts off before any battles of recent memory, but the violence is still there, even in its refinement. However, it’s still an essential part of history, and especially in the growth of the Metropolitan Museum, which still has arguably the country’s best armor collection and one only rivaled by a few in the world. And behind it all is Bashford Dean, who as photographs show didn’t just acquire 16th century Italian armor or Samurai suits, but wasn’t afraid to try them out himself in his seemingly boundless curiosity.
Bashford Dean and the Creation of the Arms and Armor Department is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through Fall 2014.