As we move into the final weeks of this year which – truth to tell – few of us can find the words to describe, I am taking it upon myself to describe something very special from The Metropolitan Museum of Art. We New Yorkers know and love this museum (once the city’s primary tourist attraction but I’m not sure if that is still the case). Whatever the museum’s ranking with the tourists, those of us living in or near New York City take very seriously its presence in our lives, and I am happy to share with readers a reference – and a recommendation – to something that, when it came into our home, Andrew and I both read with much attention. And surprisingly, we each found ourselves reading it from cover to cover, with no stopping or breaks in our reading. Not many publications have that effect at our house, so perhaps that experience is in itself enough reason to share it with those who read this online journal.
My reference here is to the latest issue of The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin. This quarterly journal, supported in part by the Lila Acheson Wallace Fund, is provided as a benefit to Museum members. It is available by subscription but, even better as you’ll see below, the Met – as probably the primary educational institution for the study of art and art history – offers the Bulletin on request.
Its purpose – this Fall 2020 issue of the Bulletin – is announced on the first page:
This special issue of the Bulletin reflects on some of the crises gripping our world in the present moment, including the catastrophic impact of a pandemic and the continuing tragedy of racial injustice. In the pages that follow, our Metropolitan Museum colleagues present their personal perspectives on issues and challenges facing us all.
As a New Yorker for over fifty years, it has been my special privilege to follow the museum in its growth and history over those years. Of course I’ve frequently taken visitors to the museum (especially out-of-town relatives and friends) simply because it is, for those of us who live here, such a significant point of pride in our hometown. Naturally those who know me well and who read these entries in my online journal know that there is another “Met” I often speak and write about, and those same readers know I’m something of an opera “freak” (yes, people like me are often called that), but this post is not about the Metropolitan Opera. That’s another story, and there are plenty of them, some of which you might already have read here.
This, though, is a different story, an attempt to lure you into spending some time reading perhaps the most remarkable description of just what The Metropolitan Museum of Art can mean to us. Not just us as visitors, art lovers, or even casual wanderers coming into one of the world’s great repositories of art and history, but to anyone who is thinking about what is happening in our society today. For almost nine months now we’ve been wrestling with four life-altering crises: the pandemic (now growing even worse than we thought it could become), racial injustice, economic turmoil – and citizens unable to feed themselves and their families – and, finally, a political environment that is making many people wonder if our democratic way of government can survive. All of these make for major worries, and it is my goal here to encourage you to read the fifteen brief essays published in this issue of the Bulletin. Not only will you feel better about where things are going when you’ve read the essays and delighted in the artworks displayed so beautifully in the photographs, you will also put the journal down with a very good understanding of what art has meant to us – as citizens and as human beings – over the centuries.
And one of the very special attractions of this issue of the Bulletin is how well the connections are made to those crises we are all dealing with. Of course the opening paragraph quoted above gives (properly, to my way of thinking) priority to the two most critical issues we’re worrying about, the pandemic and racial injustice. In fact, though, all kinds of issues are dealt with and connected with how the museum’s collections provide insight into these associations. Certainly I can’t list them all here (that wouldn’t be fair to you, the reader) but a quick look at the titles of a few of the essays makes clear that there is much to link what’s going on today with what has been experienced in the past. In the opening essay (“A Bundle of Emotions: Relating to a Pandemic”), Shanay Jhaveri, Assistant Curator, Department of Modern and Contemporary Art describes the emotional effects of other pandemics, going back as far as India’s 1896-1897 outbreak of bubonic plague that ultimately killed ten million people. In “Reflections,” Keith Prewitt, the museum’s Chief Security Officer and himself a former police officer, describes the values we are trying to follow in our society today. In his essay, Prewitt provides his own personal plea, based on his experience as a person of color: “I stand with all of you who are calling for change, and I hope that we can mirror these values as we find a path forward.”
“Walls,” by Iria Candela, Curator of Latin American Art, Department of Modern and Contemporary Art, makes the case that walls have become ultimate symbols of our times, and relates how walls are considered in society today (especially in American society), describing Hector Zamora’s Lattice Detour now displayed in the museum’s Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Roof Garden as her point of departure. In “The Black Mounted Riders,” Andrea Myers Achi, Assistant Curator, Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters, writes about how black riders throughout history (and using a fragment from a Coptic hanging as an example) connect with today’s African American cowboys who, with their presence, challenge the “traditional idea of what a horse rider could look like.” Alisa Lagamma, Curator in Charge, Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, relates the masks we are wearing today (“a covering for the face, worn either as a disguise or for protection”) to the museum’s collection of African masks and their historical purpose and, for us today, how the masks we wear relate to that latter purpose for masks. And Donald J. LaRocca, Curator, Department of Arms and Armor, makes his case for readers effortlessly in the title of his essay, “Armour, the Original PPE.”
It all comes together, as I say, in a group of essays that Andrew and I found fascinating, and I hope you – as my readers – will feel the same.
And it’s not just a story for New Yorkers. I’m aware that over half of the people who read this online journal live in many different parts of America, and, indeed, in different countries around the world, but that doesn’t mean that the essays included in this issue of the Bulletin won’t mean anything to you. Actually, I think your reactions will be just the opposite, for as you read what’s in this issue, you yourself will become aware – all over again, for you’ve probably been aware all your life – of the role that institutions such as The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York play in your own locale.
And, as I mentioned, you can read the Bulletin, and you don’t have to order it (in fact I’m not even sure if single issues are available without subscription). Go to the Met site and click on A Time of Crisis where you’ll find that this issue of the Bulletin is generously offered both as an online preview and as a pdf for download. I definitely recommend the latter, and if you want to read it (which I hope you will), I’ve even shortened the link to make it easier for you to get to it: https://bit.ly/39JCVgz.
Take a look. I think you’ll be happy you’ve read this issue. And warm congratulations – and I can’t say that more sincerely – to the publications staff who put together this very special issue. All of us are very grateful.