Civilization and Its Contents: Natalie Kampen on the New Greek and Roman Galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

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FOLLOWING A FIVE-YEAR construction project (and a decade of planning before that), the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has opened its new Greek and Roman galleries with refashioned spaces and displays that will no doubt spark some debate, comprising as they do a complex balancing act of scholarly, aesthetic, and educational missions set within the larger framework of American museum economics and collecting. Indeed, one hopes that the reinstallation and renaming of the spaces--for donors to the collection as well as those who financed the renovations--will inspire an extended discussion, as the occasion offers a chance to consider anew both the history of this collection and the collecting of antiquities in general.

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The museum's holdings are now on view as never before, with thousands of works that were previously in long-term storage given more square footage and better light than was possible in the old galleries. In most areas, and particularly in the spaces running between Fifth Avenue and the great glass-roofed atrium, the viewer finds a combination of sculpture and painting, ceramic and metal vessels and ritual objects, furniture and glassware. This array both affords visitors a sense of the changing visual culture of the ancient Mediterranean region and enlivens with brilliant splashes of color rooms that might otherwise be dominated by the white marble of statuary.

A series of questions emerges when one visits the installations. A crucial one is whether a museum is obliged, given the expense of installation, to show as much material as possible rather than rotating pieces and exhibiting fewer, in less crowded conditions, at any one time. Here, problems regarding the aesthetic needs of viewers--as opposed to the research interests of educators and scholars--seem to grow out of the very depth and complexity of the Met's Hellenistic, Etruscan, and Roman collections: Simply put, because of the richness of the museum's resources, some of the new galleries feel crowded. This is especially a problem in the inventively constructed Etruscan gallery, which lies on a mezzanine that was previously used as office space. One feels that the room is surprisingly open given its low ceiling, but one never loses the sense of many, many things occupying the space. This situation may well result from the huge costs involved with rotating parts of the collection.

In contrast, the galleries on the first floor along Fifth Avenue feel neither crowded nor fussy, in large measure because of the elegant way the long, narrow space has been divided. Two small freestanding rooms, reconstructing interiors from great villas, contain splendid, elegant frescoes. The succession of galleries creates a chronological movement from the Roman Republic, where stress is placed on the impact of Hellenistic art on the Romans, to the middle section with its early Imperial material, and then to the end galleries where one finds later Roman objects. …