The Metropolitan Museum of Art is situated on ‘Museum Mile’, a stretch of 5th Avenue along the side of Central Park that is home to nine of New York’s most famous museums. The museum dates back to 1866 in Paris, France when a group of Americans decided to create a ‘national institution and gallery of art’ to bring art and art education to the American people. The museum consists of the Main Building on Museum Mile and the Cloisters Museum and Gardens in northern Manhattan.
We enter the main building and try to decide where to start – there is just so much to see. We choose The Plains Indians: Artists of the Earth and the Sky as a starting point. This exhibition unites Plains Indians masterworks found in Europe and North American collections, from pre-contact to contemporary, ranging from a two-thousand-year-old human-effigy stone pipe to contemporary paintings, photographs, and a video-installation piece.
We learn about the Plains Indians story of survival and adaptation and see their arts that reflect the loss, persistence and renewal of traditions. Throughout the exhibition more than 150 works reflect the profound connections to both the natural and spirit worlds – to the forces of the earth and the sky.
At the end of the exhibit we come across one of forty commercially made billboards from Edgar Heap’s Minnesota series, a site-specific public work installed in downtown Minnesota in 1990 that refers to the tragic end of the 1862 Dakota War, a conflict between the Eastern Sioux and the U.S. Government. Expansions of white settlements into the Minnesota River Valley resulted in the forced relocation of Dakota people onto reservations in the late 1850s, and they eventually took up arms against the U.S. army. Following their surrender 303 Dakota people were sentenced to death by hanging. President Abraham Lincoln commuted the sentence to all but forty of them. The signs insist that the executed men, each named in Dakota and in English, be recast and honoured in what can be understood as a type of war memorial.
We continue to the Paris Salon, the official, juried exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Artes. This was a high profile venue for contemporary art for much of the nineteenth century; a successful (or controversial) Salon submission could make a career. Highlights of the collection include Pierre-August Cot’s The Storm (1880) and Springtime (1873).
Past a collection of photographs and slides of immigrants arriving at Ellis Island we reach the Vélez Blanco Patio featuring a collection of Spanish Decorative Arts from 1450 to 1700. The objects around the balcony attest to the diversity of the kingdoms of Spain.
Our next stop is the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, which houses part of the museum’s collection of Chinese Buddhist sculptures, the largest collection of its kind in the west. The stone sculptures illustrate early exchanges between the beliefs and the imagery associated with the Indian religion of Buddhism and the art, culture, and philosophy of China.
Buddhism is based upon the teachings of Siddharta Gautama, who lived in the fifth century B.C. Centres for Buddhist learning were well established in China by the second century A.D., although it is believed that Buddhism may have been established in China as early as the second century B.C. Early Chinese Buddhist sculptures often show ties to India and Central Asian traditions using figures with powerful physiques draped in thin clothing. After the twelfth century, when Buddhism disappeared in India, Chinese sculptures often illustrate exchanges with artistic traditions from Nepal and Tibet, depicting leaner figures wearing heftier robes.
We continue into the Florence and Herbert Irving South Asian Galleries, which represent India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. These galleries trace the development of sculptural arts associated with the temples and shrines of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. As we reach the end of the gallery we find an architectural ensemble of the gudha-mandapa (meeting and prayer hall) of the Vadi Parshvanatha Jain temple in Patan, Gujarat.
There is so much more for us to see in the Metropolitan Museum of Art but sadly our time in New York has come to an end. We head back to the Yotel to collect our bags and then take the subway back to the airport while already making plans for our next visit.