Something I’ve been longing to do but haven’t due to the pandemic is go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The museum looms largely in my mind because it’s one of the places I feel most peaceful, which is odd because the journey to and from the museum stresses me out and takes at least a day to recover from, but the museum itself is one of the few places where my head doesn’t feel like it’s constantly buzzing.
Part of that peace is that I’ve been there more than I’ve probably been to any location that isn’t a local store. For years, I made yearly birthday pilgrimages to the Met to visit my favorite pieces of art or walk along its stone halls and balconies hoping to see that one exhibit that always seems to be under renovation. When talking to friends, I’ve realized that my ideal trip to the Met is a little different than most.
When you first enter the Met, you can choose to go left to Rome and Greece or right to Egypt or straight ahead to the Byzantine/early Medieval galleries (this one being the least chosen path or only used as a way to reach the massive knee-breaking steps to the European painting galleries upstairs). I like to arrive early in the morning to avoid the crush of children and visitors in the summer, but even at the opening, Egypt is mobbed, and the galleries off the main room are a labyrinth. Instead, I make a break through the center galleries and head straight for the European Decorative Arts galleries. There’s the thrill of the chase to escape the bustle of the more popular exhibits, and the drop of blood pressure when the ceilings rise to reveal the two facades of the museum in the sculpture court, a gap where you can see that the museum was added onto in the early 1900s.
This is where I visit old friends. Winter by Houdon being the first sculpture I acknowledge upon arrival. Marble and bronze sculptures line the walls and break up the long courtyard, which ends in a glass wall where you can see Cleopatra’s Needle in Central Park. Standing in that gallery feels like standing in the intersection of time. Each wall is a different style, the art is a mix of classical and modern (for their time), and an Ancient Egyptian obelisk presides over it all while I stand watch in jeans and a t-shirt.
Surrounding this gallery are rooms that are filled with personal objects and antiques. These are far more modern than other parts of the museum, think 1600s and newer, but they are my favorite. My face is glued to cabinets full of miniature portraits of people whose names have no context but were loved enough to kept close. Desks inlaid with mother of pearl stars and stained with errant ink or painted fans carried to operas or balls steal my attention. I love detail. The pieces in the European Decorative Arts galleries are most certainly objects of the well-to-do, but they spark my imagination. There are few things that fascinate me more than a clever object that was as useful as it was beautiful. I try to imagine the world the object resided in before it came to the museum. What did it see sitting on a shelf in the parlor or at the edge of a desk? Best of all are the period rooms where the walls and furniture from a real place continents away have been installed in the museum. My back straightens and the world quiets as I stand in these rooms, the parquet floor whining under my soft steps. Who lived here and how did it feel long ago?
On the other side of the last few galleries is the American Wing, which is typically my last stop before lunch. One cannot journey back in time on an empty stomach. These galleries are much the same with lots of Federalist furniture pieces, window dressings on your historical drama. I try to picture Austen-like tales set against the backdrop of bright American wallpapers and sculpted pewter cups. There’s a strange section in this gallery that appears almost like an antique store. It’s row upon row upon row of glass cases filled with bedraggled furniture. A labyrinth to dead objects. All at once, I find it unsettling and comforting after seeing so much beauty. Chair legs chewed by a dog, seats that need restringing, a bed set stacked up without its mattress. The museum’s attic on full display.
The upper stories of the American Wing are lovely but unfortunately trigger my fear of heights. I creep away from the railing or cling to my partner in what I hope looks like casual affection but is bone-deep terror of crashing headfirst to the stone floor below. But I’ll do it to see intricate glass and metalwork done by artisans now nameless and faceless, skilled hands lost to time like the builders of pyramids. A sampler done by a child catches my eye, though I don’t know if she survived to adulthood. Embroideries, quilts, gloves covered in tiny stitches, women’s work taken for granted. That’s truly what catches my eye, the details taken for granted. The things we eat off and drink from, the decoration that sits on our desk for years, the handsome legs of a chair never noticed until put in isolation.
Perhaps that’s why I’m no longer called to Egypt or Rome or even the galleries of paintings. There is no quiet. Their grandiosity smothers me, and it’s too much. I’d rather spend my day studying the curves of a teapot than a tempest tossed sea or a ruler slaying the conquered in stone. Even in Egypt and Rome, I find myself gravitating to the broken pots, chunks of fabric, and unstrung jewelry. Disappointment washes over me when I read the tiny placard and know no more of how it was accomplished, how hands long ago weaved or carved or glazed to make a quiet, useful thing, a thing taken for granted for its normality. Still taken for granted today.