The American Wing gets ready to soar

Fine tuning the Engelhard Court was hardly child’s play, but it can seem so in contrast to the complexities involved with the major reorganization of the period rooms, a tour-de-force of revisionist museology. The new chronological progression of interiors from the seventeenth through twentieth centuries seems so familiar and logical that it is hard to believe how much effort was expended. A feasibility study by the New York preservation architect and planner Jean Parker Phifer gave the museum a clearer idea of how the three-story American Wing could be recast to make three centuries of authentic but architecturally disparate spaces easier to navigate and clearer to comprehend. Armed with her report on what was possible, the museum was able to present Roche with a clear vision for him to realize.

Heckscher has spent his entire professional career at the museum, and over the course of those four decades has developed an unrivaled knowledge of what works there and what does not. He has seen superb period rooms neglected because of poor circulation patterns, and masterpiece-crammed vitrines doomed to obscurity if positioned just slightly off the beaten path. Without surrendering to hucksterish impulses, Heckscher, a model of scholarly probity, has nonetheless made moving through the period rooms more propulsive, resonant, and instructive than ever before.

Several period interiors have been assigned new places in the sequence. Three long-exhibited rooms were retired because Heckscher deemed them not good enough for the wing. One strong new addition—from the Daniel Peter Winne house of 1751 near Albany, New York—will be used as a gallery for objects related to the state’s pre-Revolutionary Dutch heritage (see Fig. 9).

And even rooms that were left more or less intact and in place were reconsidered and tweaked in other ways. For example, Heckscher was never happy with the characteristic blue-green painted paneling of the Verplanck Room (see Figs. 11, 12), even though the color had been painstakingly matched to period scrapings and would be familiar to any historic-house buff. He had, however, been much more favorably impressed by that color as it appeared in a historic house in Newport, Rhode Island, but could not figure out why that finish looked so much more convincing until he learned that the American Wing had used a modern latex-base pigment. The linseed-oil based paint used in Newport, applied with brushes rather than rollers, possessed a depth that increased with age and gave a fifty-year-old paint job the aura of antiquity. Now the paneling in the Verplanck Room has been redone in just that way.

Two big problems that long dogged the American Wing have been resolved—or, at least, ameliorated—by this phase of the renovation. It was always such an effort to reach the American galleries, on the northern extremities of the museum’s sprawling complex. The shortest route there from the Fifth Avenue entrance leads through the hangarlike Sackler Wing, which houses the Temple of Dendur, but you would never know that was possible until now because Roche concealed an almost invisible portal to the American Wing directly behind the reconstructed Egyptian shrine itself. A new, impossible-to-miss, clearly labeled doorway has been cut through the rear wall of the Dendur space—a long overdue rectification of a galling functional lapse.

Even after visitors found their way to the American Wing, they often felt confused about where the gallery sequence began. A newly installed public elevator will now whisk viewers up to the top floor, where the march of time begins. Then they will be led downward, story by story, much as the spiral ramp of Frank Lloyd Wright’s nearby Guggenheim Museum does in a more seamless fashion. Heckscher has tightened the journey by eliminating alternate routes and keeping existing doors closed, but you never feel trapped by the strong directional order.

There is still much more to be done before the renovation project concludes, two years hence, but this latest and perhaps decisive phase is certain to expand appreciation for a great national treasure. Even though its officials would insist that the Metropolitan Museum has been deeply committed to the arts of our own country for the better part of a century, the clear subtext of this superb recasting of the American Wing is that ours is a culture worthy of presentation on the same high level as all the other civilizations celebrated by the world’s most inclusive museum.
Martin Filler is a regular contributor to Antiques.

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[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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