The Metropolitan Museum of Art, known colloquially as the Met, is the largest art museum in the United States and one of the most visited in the world. With a permanent collection of over two million art works, the nearly century and a half-old museum’s secrets are as rich as its history.
The best way to learn about the Met is to visit and take a tour. Tour guides spend day in and day out exploring and touring the majestic space, understanding its evolution, and become acquainted with the timeless objects curated with care throughout its many galleries.
Here are 14 amazing and surprising facts about the Metropolitan Museum of Art straight from the individuals that know it best: New York City’s tour guide experts.
1. The Met is the brainchild of a Founding Father’s grandson, and many other prominent New York figures.
According to @Discovering_NYC, a writer, historian and NYC tour guide popular on Twitter, the idea for the Met came from John Jay, the grandson of lesser-known Founding Father, also named John Jay.
In 1869, a committee of 300 met in 1869 to organize the museum, including many prominent New Yorkers involved with its creation: Andrew Haswell Green, John La Farge, James Lenox, Frederick Law Olmsted, Alexander Stewart and Rutherfurd Stuyvesant, to name a few.
2. The Met was not always located in Central Park.
The Met’s first location was in the Dodworth building at 681 5th Avenue, a simple brownstone building, then in a mansion at 128 W 14th street. The Central Park location was secured in 1969 thanks to cooperation from the Central Park Commissioners (many of whom were involved with the Museum) and opened in 1880.
3. The original red Gothic building is still visible if you to know where to look.
The original red Gothic building was designed by Calvert Vaux and Jacob Wrey Mould. It still stands, and one great view is from the European Sculpture Court, according to Discovering_NYC.
Since the Met expanded outward, the building can be seen at its center, which is called Medieval Court. “The Met is like a giant onion; they just keep building more stuff onto it,” says Museum Hack, a leading provider of fun, unconventional tours at the Met and other museums. The 1880 building is totally encased, and the best places to spot it is in the Petrie Court Sculpture Gallery and the Lehman Wing.
4. Since the first collection opened, objects have risen in number from less than 200 to 2 million. That’s an average of over 13,000 new artworks every year.
The first collection opened on February 20th, 1872, before the Met had its permanent home, including just 174 paintings and a few sculptures. Now, it contains two million objects celebrating mankind’s artistic endeavors spanning a quarter of a mile and 20 buildings.
5. The Museum’s front facade has been incomplete for over a century.
One of the numerous additions to the original building, the magnificent facade facing 5th Avenue was built in 1895, designed by Richard Morris Hunt, one of the founders of the American Institute of Architects. Hunt’s design included four columns supporting allegorical statues of architecture, sculpture, music and painting, but they were never finished because the funds didn’t allow for it. (Discovering_NYC).
6. The Met includes a beautiful uptown complex called The Cloisters.
Not everyone knows that there is more to the Met than its on-site art collections. Situated in Fort Tryon Park, the complex includes five Medieval cloisters and an incredible collection of Medieval art. John D. Rockefeller bought the collection for the Met, and also purchased land on the side of the Palisades to preserve the magnificent view. (Discovering_NYC)
7. The best bathrooms are in Gallery 207, not the Egyptian Wing.
According to Museum Hack’s insider knowledge, the bathrooms in the Egyptian Wing can be “packed and smelly.” To avoid this, take the Grand Staircase and high-tail it to Asian Art, where the Gallery 207 bathrooms are impressive, crowd-free and nice-smelling.
8. Use the 81st street entrance for shorter lines, pre-admission bathrooms, and your own private gift shop.
The main entrance on 82nd Street can be a madhouse, with long waits for coat check and admission. But if you simply stroll down to 81st and use the Uris Center for Education Entrance, Museum Hack attests, there will be shorter lines, a separate coat-check, pre-admission bathrooms and a private gift shop.
9. With over six million visitors each year, it is always crowded — but there are a few quiet spots.
Though the museum is almost always full of people, there are some somewhat secluded galleries if one is seeking a contemplative spot, says NYC Licensed Sightseeing Guide Robin Garr says, who also works for the private tour group The Levys’ Unique New York.
These include the Astor Chinese Garden Court, where you’ll find a replica of a Ming Dynasty garden from Suzhou (2nd floor, Asian Art galleries); the Henry R. Luce Center for the Study of American Art featuring 10,000 American decorative and fine art objects in open storage cases (2nd floor of American Wing); and the 20 historic-period rooms in the American Wing.
10. The Met holds the largest collections of arms and armor in the Western Hemisphere.
Created within the museum in 1912, the collection comprises roughly 14,000 objects, of which more than 5,000 are European, 2,000 are from the Near East, and 4,000 from the Far East.
The first curator of the Arms and Armor department was, rather fittingly, a man named Helmut Nickel, Robin Garr says.
11. The museum’s first accessioned object was a Roman sarcophagus, currently on display in the Greek and Roman Galleries.
A sarcophagus, which means “flesh-eater” in Greek, is an ancient Roman burial practice and art form by which elaborate designs are carved into limestone and marble containers. The Met’s Roman sarcophagus was a gift from J. Abdo Debbas, the American vice-consul at Tarsus (Southern Turkey) in 1870. It remains a centerpiece of the galleries of Greek and Roman art, says Garr.
12. The Met’s Egyptian collection holds the largest collection of Egyptian art outside of Cairo, and the oldest items in the museum.
Mostly from private collectors, the Met is home to over 26,000 pieces of Egyptian art from the Paleolithic era to the Roman era, second only to Cairo in quantity. The oldest items in the museum are a set of Acheulean flints in this collection, which date from the Lower Paleolithic period — between 300,000 and 75,00 BC!
Notable artworks also include the Temple of Dendur, a stunning Egyptian temple built by the Roman governor Petronius in 15 AD. A gift from Egypt to the USA in 1965, the temple is illuminated in a sky-lit room with a pool meant to evoke the Nile river. (Robin Garr)
13. There is a resident florist at the Met that arranges humongous floral displays.
You may see some beautiful floral arrangements during your visit to the met. According to Garr, the floral displays in the Great Hall niches were permanently endowed by Lila Acheson Wallace (co-founder and co-chairman of Reader’s Digest).
There is also a resident florist for the Met: “Floral Curator” Remco van Vliet is a third generation master Dutch florist. Floral arrangements are comprised of fresh, seasonal vegetation and can be as tall as ten to twelve feet.
14. You can’t see the Met in one visit.
At two million square feet, it’s impossible to see everything the Met has to offer in just one day. Many visitors make the mistake of winging it only to miss the best parts because they didn’t plan properly.
Robin Garr suggests that visitors pick a few favorite objects, two periods of art, or two geographical/cultural areas they would like to see. Prioritize the ones that are most important, but don’t spread yourself too thin or you’ll be unlikely to enjoy the experience.
If it wasn’t already clear that they know the Met inside out, it goes without saying that a knowledgeable guide can help you make the most of your day or days at the Met, and share even more pearls of wisdom along the way.Check out Discovering_NYC, Museum Hacks, Robin Garr and The Levys’ Unique New York for more of insight likely to escape regular visitors.
Featured image: Steven Pisano via Flickr