It all began with a box. It wasn't just an ordinary box though; it was a big box, a big stone box and, even empty, it weighed more than a ton. It was a Roman sarcophagus from the third century CE nicely carved with garlands and various human figures. No one knows or cares about its original occupant. It is important mostly because around it came to be built one of the largest museums of art in the world. It is marked by the accession number 70.1. The "70" stands for 1870 and the "1" means it was the first item acquired by New York City's famed Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Everyone calls it the "Met." Only in America would such a big museum have such a small, friendly, familiar name. Can you imagine the Russians referring to the Hermitage as the "Herm" or the French calling the Louvre the "Lou?" In reading what I've just written I have to laugh. Calling the Met "big" is like calling the green copper lady in New York harbour "tall." In this case, "big" means two million square feet and three million works of art (plus the Medieval works at the Cloisters, sequestered away in the hills of upper Manhattan). At the Met, big means 5,000 years of art. It means 1,700 employees plus another 500 volunteers. Big means it displays a Chinese mural over 24 feet high and almost 50 feet wide done in 147 CE. Big means it houses an entire Egyptian temple, the stone Temple of Dendur from 15 BCE. Big means a canvas painted by John Vanderlyn in 1818 that is 165 feet long (originally displayed in a windowless, sky-lit, circular room) depicting the palace and gardens of Versailles. Big means the largest framed painting in the world, German artist Emanuel Leutze's Washington Crossing the Delaware painted in 1851. The work is more than 12 feet tall and over 21 feet long.
The first Met was not very big. It was hardly more than a storefront at 681 Fifth Avenue, barely big enough for the big stone box and 174 paintings hung frame to frame (as was the custom at the time). Early Met works including paintings by Hals, van Dyck, Poussin, Tiepolo, and several other mostly European masters which formed the core collection. In 1873, with the purchase of the Cesnola Collection of antiquities excavated on the island of Cyprus, the museum was forced to move to the Douglas Mansion at 128 West 14th Street. Then, in 1880, the Met talked the city of New York into a large parcel of land in the brand new Central Park where they build a Gothic Revival art mausoleum to house their growing collection. Soon after, they bought two works by Manet, inherited 38 pieces by the American painter, John Kensett, and began adding at a rapid clip Renoirs, Degas, Monets, and in 1910, became the first museum in the world to display the work of Matisse. Although the museum continues to reside in Central Park along New York's trendy Fifth Avenue, don't go looking for any dark, Gothic pile of stone. It's not that the original structure isn't still there; it's just been totally encapsulated by enough additions and wings over the last 112 years to outfit a host of angels (paid for by art angels, of course). The current Fifth Avenue fašade was completed in 1926; the Beaux-arts styled confection of American architect Richard Morris Hunt. Some 20 times bigger than the original 1880 structure, today the museum is almost a quarter mile long (or the equivalent of four New York City blocks).
A hundred years ago, around 800,000 people each year visited the Met. Today, it's more than six million. The museum presents more than thirty special exhibitions each year representing virtually every era, style, and culture. Organised into 21 different departments, the museum, despite its immense size, is able to display only a small fraction of its total collection. Its holdings in Egyptian artefacts, American decorative arts, painting, and sculpture, and Medieval European works are second to none in this country. Additionally, the Met is exceptional among world class museums for its historic displays of clothing and costumes, its collection of musical instruments, its surprisingly large holdings of Islamic art, its library of rare literary works, and its unmatched collection of textiles. And amongst all this, the big stone box is still there. It's at the top of the front steps, on the main floor, off to the left, just inside the front door of the somewhat bigger stone box that houses all the other art stuff that followed it.