Which three countries are best represented in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s permanent collection? If you guessed, say, the United States, Greece, and Egypt, you’ve done pretty well — it’s actually Egypt, the US, and Iran, in that order — but you probably couldn’t guess the fourth most prevalent national source of works at the museum, which is Peru (Greece doesn’t even make the top 10).
What types of objects do you think make up the bulk of the Met’s collection? No surprises here, as prints, photographs, drawings, and books are, respectively, the most well represented media among the 446,123 artifacts in the museum’s most recently uploaded inventory spreadsheet, “MetObjects.” But those are all relatively young media; the museum’s holdings predating the current era consist overwhelmingly of vases, glass, and ceramic.
These and other insights have been plotted, graphed, and analyzed by Oliver Roeder at FiveThirtyEight, whose data-driven analysis of the Met’s collection is completely fascinating. He shows not only how the collection breaks down by medium, region of origin, and era of creation, but also how information like the time at which objects were acquired gives a sense of the museum’s evolving collecting practices.
For instance, the vastness of its Egyptian collection is partly explained by a deal the Met struck in the early 20th century with Egypt’s government to split the findings from digs with the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. A similar agreement with Iran explains the spike in acquisitions of artifacts from that country around 1940, when the Met helped excavate the ancient city of Nishapur. Exactly how the Met’s current collecting practices — like recent attempts to bulk up its holdings of modern, folk, and Native American art — will shift the data in the future is anyone’s guess. But it will take a lot of Rauschenbergs to outnumber all those Egyptian scarabs.