The Metropolitan Museum of Art is as American of an institution as the White House, the Senate or Faneuil Hall. This year is a special one in particular for the Met, as 150 years ago today they opened their doors on 5th Avenue in New York City.  

An annual trip to the Met has been a personal tradition of mine that started back in high school when my art teacher organized a coach bus to take us into the city, about a two hour drive from Farmington, CT. It was a treat to take a day off from school and study, getting to instead read a book on the bus ride and see some world-famous art. 

The Secrets of the Pharaohs…

If you’re like me, a plan is necessary for a productive day of cultural immersion. 

I had kept my Met map from the last trip and penciled in a route from the grand staircase and foyer, as I refer to it, through the European Arts, into the Medieval Arts and American and European Interior Exhibitions, finally ending in the American Arts part of the museum. 

It became clear upon entering the museum that it would be a difficult route to stick to. I was about to climb the stairs to the upper level, like the celebrities at the Met Gala, when out of the corner of my eye, the Egyptian section caught my attention. 

“But it’s not on the itinerary,” I told myself. That must’ve been an amusing scene for passerbyers – a teenager standing in the middle of the hall, looking back and forth between the staircase and the entrance to the Egyptian Exhibition for a few solid minutes. I decided to live on the wild side of life and venture away from my plan… just this once. 

I was pleasantly surprised, to say the least. I had never considered myself a pharaoh enthusiast, but I must admit that the things I saw and learned from the side venture made me a little more curious about this side of history. There was an original, rebuilt ancient Egyptian tomb of a pharaoh, whose name I can hardly pronounce, with hieroglyphics on the walls that reminded me of the kind you only see in movies. 

There were images of ancient Egyptians carrying a bull to sacrifice and of others harvesting wheat, carved right into the limestone. Looking at this, you are forced to think about what human hands made thousands of years ago. These hieroglyphics illustrate the lineage of human history and culture. I had the chance to be close to artifacts and ways of life that this ancient group of people held dear. The gilded sarcophagi found in the next room made me think about what the ancient people thought of the afterlife, and how it compares to us today.

Back to the plan…

With my thirst for ancient Egypt quenched, I was able to refocus on the main part of the trip – european decorative arts and painting. It was hard not to yearn to be a French aristocrat in the 18th century when I walked by the various pieces of furniture and personal items they had at their disposal. 

The items we gaze at behind bulletproof, highly-secured glass at a museum in the 21st century was nothing out of the ordinary for a gentleman or lady back in 1780. I’m talking about snuff boxes made of pure gold, embedded with diamonds, as if the gold itself wasn’t enough. There was a one of a kind Tiffany & Co. necklace with a violet sapphire right in the middle, that must have shone in the candlelit ballrooms. Earrings, bracelets, and other forms of jewelry that Queen Elizabeth II might envy, along with everyone else were on display. 

With a few more steps, I found myself in the middle of King Louis the XIV’s Palace of Versailles, while still on Fifth Avenue in New York. There were huge rooms that replicated those of the palace. Silk covered every inch of the wall, the ceiling reached up to the heavens and was adorned with Rococo style baby angels at all four corners. The bed frame was an elaborate tapestry that rivaled those seen at church. It felt like an assault on my senses, with the creaking floorboards, the smell of ancient wood, the threads of the tapestry and the smoothness of the silk. I, like Mr. Peabody and Sherman, have traveled back to a simpler time, of ornate exuberance and decorative abundance. A time, which for better or worse, is long gone in our society’s rearview mirror. 

Further down the corridor, I found myself walking by a colonial American dining room, with its serious wallpaper and elaborate table setting. Portraits of prominent Americans hung on all four walls. That room naturally opened into a sitting room, with a game of poker all set up on a middle table. I could only imagine the people that would have sat there 200 years ago, with cigars in their mouths and glasses of brandy on ice. 

The galleries of the Met are a statement to themselves. The paintings are well spaced and well lit, offering an immersive experience in which to truly appreciate the artist’s intentions. Yet, the painting that stands out of all is, “Washington Crossing the Delaware.” 

First of all, it’s a monumental painting. It’s huge. It takes up the entire wall by itself, and the feeling you get when you turn the corner to find yourself facing that famous painting is second to none. We can talk about the historical inaccuracies of the work some other time, but the essence of it, and its symbol for American patriotism and vitality remains true. Other personal favorites are Thomas Cole’s “The Oxbow” and Albert Bierstadt’s “The Rocky Mountains, Lander’s Peak.”

Admiration for the art is part of the experience, you don’t have to be an art critic or understand the meaning behind every brush movement or the angles in a painting. My favorite part is to go in not knowing much, and then study and learn more about the time periods in which the piece was created. Seeing and immersing yourself in past examples of human creativity reveals to us the vast potential for human thought and expression.

Ben Franklin got it right when he said, “an investment in knowledge pays the best interest.” By the time I come back to the Met again, I’ll have certainly brushed up on my Pharoah knowledge.

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