By 17th-century standards, the Ipswich, Mass., tanner Samuel Hart and his family seem to have fared reasonably well: A low-ceilinged, combined cooking-dining-sleeping area—once a part of their circa-1680 home and now the earliest of the newly reopened historic rooms in the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art—includes a canopied bed, a cradle, a nifty chair whose hinged back converts to a tabletop, a large cooking hearth and, oh yes, an electronic touch-screen.
That last item, which gives visitors a selection of easily-accessible accounts of the house, its inhabitants, its furniture and other information, was clearly not part of the original Hart probate inventory on which the furnishings are based. But it is certainly an engaging aspect (especially, it’s safe to predict, for children and teenagers) of the American Wing changes effected during a recently-concluded two-year period of construction, renovation and reconfiguring.
The second part of a three-phase, $100-million project had begun in 2002 to improve on nearly every section of the American Wing by 2011, the renovation has been, as much as anything, a matter of creating a logical flow of visitor traffic through the wing.
“The biggest challenge was creating order, in a building that consisted of a 1924 core” surrounded by a “vast new addition in 1980,” said Morrison H. Heckscher, the chairman of the American Wing. With objects and rooms dispersed over multiple floors in the two structures, he said, visitors would often leave the American Wing after a stop in its lovely, glass-roofed Charles Engelhard Court (site of the famed Tiffany loggia and stained glass windows, and other architectural artifacts), oblivious to the American arts collections exhibited elsewhere.
From the courtyard, “there was no real, inviting view to suggest there was anything else to see,” Mr. Heckscher said. “They would tend to go down the corridor and into the Egyptian Wing.”
“Nothing wrong with that,” he added in a Seinfeldian touch, “but that’s not what we want.”
Cues to the variety and depth of the American collection now begin right in the courtyard. The greenery of its garden-courtyard days is gone. Large-scale sculptures have been repositioned and installed in freshly coherent groupings on the new, light-hued marble floor. “We transformed a garden court into a sculpture court,” Mr. Heckscher said.
Looking up from the Engelhard Court, visitors see a glass-fronted balcony—previously behind a concrete parapet—as well as a newly-constructed mezzanine-level balcony whose own glass front hints at the hundreds of newly exhibited examples of American art pottery on view there.
The 250 vessels, vases and other objects, made between 1876 and 1956, are the promised gift of a collector, Robert A. Ellison, Jr., and have never before been seen in public. Lovers of the field will recognize the names of the greatest American potters and studios (Rookwood and Newcomb, to name two) of the period. Among the highlights, for dedicated follower or curious neophyte alike: The 16 idiosyncratic vessels, with their unlikely folds, droops and pinches, by the famed Mississippian George Ohr (1857-1918), the so-called “Mad Potter of Biloxi.”
The upper balcony teems with ceramics, glass, silver and pewter; once separated by medium, they are now all shown together, chronologically, to better trace the development of styles and themes from colonial times into the 20th century.
There are any number of showstoppers. Just for samplers: the large, 1876 “Bryant vase,” a large silver urn by Tiffany & Company, commissioned by friends of the poet William Cullen Bryant and profusely adorned with decorative motifs, including medallions drawn from his life and works.
As for those period rooms, once too-easily overlooked, a new, glass-enclosed elevator connects the first floor to the third, where an orientation gallery leads to the simple Hart domicile; from there, 18 other rooms (11 of them, along with the Hart room, newly renovated) spanning three floors of the wing, take the visitor through the story—newly arranged in historical sequence—of American domestic architecture. That story ends with an early 20th-century room designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
A final room, from the Manhattan home of John D. Rockefeller, along with the American paintings and sculpture galleries (think Eakins, Sargent, Cassatt, among many others) won’t be on view for another two years But why quibble. Best to heed the words found on a little blue and yellow jar in the Ellison collection: “The world is so full of a number of things/I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.”
Karin Lipson, a former arts reporter and editor for Newsday, is a freelance journalist who writes frequently on the arts for The New York Times. Her last piece in Promenade was on the Valentina exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York.
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