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Metropolitan Museum: New American Wing

New York City

After four years of renovation, the New American Wing at New York’s Metropolitan Museum fully reopened in mid-January. And it’s amazing—not least in how it turns expectations inside out.

The size (30,000 square feet of exhibition space) and scope (almost 17,000 works) are daunting. You approach it through the two-story Charles Engelhard Court, an awesome glass atrium with mezzanine galleries (and a café) overlooking Central Park, passing by case after case of Tiffany glass, rare silver, pewter artifacts and the like. The looming portico fronting the wing’s entrances suggests monumentality. But once you’re inside, you’ll discover this redesigned array of American cultural treasure is remarkably flexible, easily maneuverable and unexpectedly intimate—much more inviting and interesting than it used to be.

The wing is arranged broadly by chronology, but its clever designers have created a flow of 26 well-lit, warm-hued, human-sized galleries organized thematically. Among the logos: Colonial Portraiture, Era of the Revolution, Art in the Folk Tradition, Hudson River School, In the Artist’s Studio, Winslow Homer and Thomas Eakins, The West, Ashcan Painters and Their Circle. Each has gems, many familiar (Homer, Eakins, Gilbert Stuart, Mary Cassatt, Frederic Remington, Thomas Cole, Augustus Saint Gaudens, John Singer Sargent) and some not (a folk-art rendition of John Brown kissing a black baby on his way to his doom; 19thcentury trompe l’oeil paintings that look prophetically modern). As much stuff as there is, nothing feels crammed.

The galleries are numbered for continuity, but they also branch off and abut each other in ways that encourage serendipity and choice. You can follow the numbers and stick to the timeline, or easily wander off-track to something beckoning through a portal. It’s an almost subliminal enactment of how democracy can work. And between the ingenious layout and the vast area, even weekend crowds feel manageable. The one exception is the newly restored Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze, the focal point of a double-sized central gallery that always draws a hefty knot of viewers.

If you’re not toast after drinking all this in, head downstairs to 18th-century room arrangements and long Plexiglas aisles. These transparent units are increasingly popular with museums. Here they let viewers see (and use touchscreen labels to learn more about) nearly 10,000 remarkable artifacts that would be hidden in storage. In the process, they remind us that places like this New American Wing are our history’s living showcases.


Originally published in the June 2012 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.