The Met Museum looks pretty good for 150. As with much on the Upper East Side, its most recent facelift was financed with rightwing blood money (David H. Koch’s Plaza). Questions of how the Museum might responsibly recount its history, or make meaningful reparations to people of color long ignored as artists, scholars, and part of its audience remain open ones. But Making the Met, the anniversary exhibition chronicling the museum’s first 150 years, botched several opportunities to truly reckon with own history, as well as its role in defining who is and isn’t included in dominant narratives of art history.
The show is laid out over ten sequential galleries, each recounting an episode from the Met’s history. It opens with a prelude room featuring seven works from various cultures, each exploring the human figure. The second gallery turns in earnest to the museum’s founding decades in the late nineteenth century. The third and fourth chart its growth in the early 20th century, while the fifth grapples with how its early archaeology practices are now widely regarded as unethical. And so on, as the galleries explore how the Met came to embrace “American” art, its acquisition paradoxes — millionaires entangled with various forms of slavery and unconscionable labor practices gave the Met some of its most beloved impressionist and European art — as well as its own lamenting of the Museum’s reluctance to collect other more challenging modernisms, and its mourning of the Second World War and its impact on the museum specifically. The ninth gallery celebrates the centennial in 1970 and brags about its global art wing, while the final gallery virtue signals its newfound appreciation for multicultural perspectives and broadening the cannon.
Racial inequality taints every chapter of the Met’s history. Speaking courageously and honestly about the past is incumbent upon the institution. The Met extends the olive branch with numerous comments in wall texts throughout the show. It doesn’t shy away from identifying how the Havemeyers profited from slavery in the deplorable sugar trade before giving to the Museum. It laments its hesitations to embrace many Black artists from Harlem, and the disastrous 1969 exhibition, Harlem on My Mind. It heralds its new galleries for Asian Art, African Art, Oceanic Art and the “Arts from Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia.” Its closing note is an unabashed nod to multiculturalism.
And yet, despite these good intentions and sincere efforts, there are some painful moments where the show falls flat on its face. For many white people, racism is like oxygen. It’s everywhere but they don’t see it or understand it fully, even though it enables their survival. In 2020, many attempt allyship only to reveal their knowledge gaps. In this way, Making the Met follows an all too familiar pattern.
It was so exciting to behold Faith Ringgold’s “Story Quilt” (1985) in the final gallery. But it deserved more context than simply being hung in the “look how multicultural we’ve become” redemption room. It was a stroke of genius when Ann Temkin and Anne Umland hung Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” (1907) alongside Faith Ringgold’s “Die” (1967) at MoMA, given their formal echoes. The artworks speak to each other visually. There was no such stunning visual connection between contemporary works by Faith Ringgold, Carmen Herrera, and El Anatsui, a 15th century Armenian gospel, and 18th century Torah Finials. While the Met deserves credit for these overdue acquisitions, true creativity would have involved hanging works with visual affinities that can dialogue with each other. In the opening gallery, the Museum placed works by Vincent Van Gogh, Auguste Rodin, and Richard Avedon in dialogue with those of Isamu Noguchi, an ancient greek Stele, and figurative sculpture from Nepal and the Yombe Group. The figure was the thread that stitched it all together. Does art by white men have to present to curate a room with formal connections?
Likewise, the Museum didn’t write enough on the walls about the numerous ethical issues surrounding the Michael C. Rockefeller Wing.For example:
The Met’s 100th anniversary was celebrated in 1970 with great fanfare and was marked by reflection on the past, present, and future of the institution. Among the milestones lauded on this occasion were the monumental gifts of the Temple of Dendur from Egypt, the Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection of Primitive Art (as it was regrettably called then), and Robert Lehman’s extensive holdings of western European art.
Wall texts can’t be as nuanced as dissertations. Nevertheless, it is parsimonious that the museum chose not to compose even a short separate paragraph expounding why “Primitive Art” is now regarded as an inappropriate label, reflective of the reductive, racist biases of the first collectors of African, Oceanic, and Indigenous art from the Americas, which distorted generations of scholarship. All the “Primitive Art in New York” label does is express regrets over the museum’s previous use of a term now regarded as politically incorrect. Another nearby label about “Recovering Missing Chapters” read more like hagiography for the Rockfellers for bringing a trove of “global” art to the museum. They passed the buck on explicitly airing the valid criticisms of how it intermixes unrelated cultures.
The museum is currently undertaking a renovation to remedy longstanding objections over how the Rockfeller Wing has long been arranged without enough context. It’s lazy and ignorant to intertwine art from unconnected peoples in Africa, Oceania, and Pre-Conquest contexts in the Americas. Although, the museum has politely erased the word primitive from its signage, the underlying organizing principle remains intact in practice. Why not publicly own past mistakes, teach everyone what they were, and tell the story of how it’s being fixed? A messy paragraph might be more meaningful than expressing regrets in parentheses. Why leave so much unsaid? The answer, of course — let’s not unduly upset the Rockefellers with the wall texts — is leave the hard stuff for the catalog.
Another red flag is a little wall text tucked in a corner, bemoaning the museum’s own exclusion of numerous Harlem renaissance artists from the collection. Although, credit is taken for acquiring the work of Jacob Lawrence early on, as well as for his recent exhibition. It’s apparently lost on the museum how much this reeks of tokenism.
It’s a daunting task to weave together a just and honest narrative for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2020. Visitors are not a monolith — some may well believe the Met did good enough to try. However, the attendant omissions as well as awkward attempts at admission left much to be desired. These nuances would be familiar to anyone who has engaged with longstanding BIPOC critiques of art history and museums, put forth by numerous activists and curators. Sadly, Jason Fargo’s lavish praise and Eric Gibson’s vile review reveal other agendas than listening to and integrating voices that challenge. The enterprise to narrate art history more fairly in prominent museums like the Met remains far from finished.
Editor’s note (11/12/20): This review has been updated to include the correct caption for the Fang reliquary figure, previous misidentified, to correct the spelling of the Havemeyer family name and include additional clarifying details about their connections to slavery, and to clarify details about the museum’s label regarding “Primitive Art” in the galleries.
Making the Met: 1870-2020 is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art at 1000 Fifth Avenue until January 3rd, 2020.