Yesterday I visited the Met’s tribute exhibition to the departing Montebello, entitled “The Philippe de Montebello Years: Curators Celebrate Three Decades of Acquisitions.” It is a surprisingly large exhibit, consisting of roughly three hundred works, juxtaposed together in ways you’ve never seen before. I think this is one of the great strengths of the exhibit. Just walking through, it felt like a complete jumble; the environment that Montebello wanted to create with this exhibit, including startling constrasts, and comparisons across geography and time, didn’t quite work for me. I really found myself looking at each work as if it were in a vaccuum, as if it had nothing to do with one another.
But look at it again, and there are indeed striking and interesting comparisons. A Chinese qin placed together with an African horn. Intricately carved Chinese ivories and jades in the same case with tiny golden Christian icons. A Congolese “power figure” next to a marble bust of a Medici.
I think the greatest thing about this exhibit, however, is the way it allows us a peek into the human side of the museum, that is, the director, the curators, the exhibit designers, and the decisions they make and processes they go through. The exhibit was not nearly as “behind the scenes” as I’d expected or hoped, but a good number of the gallery labels on the works talked about the circumstances under which the work was obtained, and why it was selected at that point. One work happened to come on the market just as the Museum was preparing to do a major exhibition by that artist. One, an exquisitely sculpted Renaissance-era bust, was acquired despite both its artist and subject being unknown; the label explains that they simply could not miss the opportunity to acquire such a beautiful, and masterfully crafted, object, and that they would afterwards have all the time in the world to figure out who made it and who it depicts.
The exhibit opens with a personal message from Montebello, thanking the Museum for this departing gift, and asking that we visitors keep in mind all the people who worked hard to make this happen; I wish I could have kept a copy of this very well-written message. It was accompanied by photos of acquisition meetings, in which curators try to convince the Trustees and other officials that the Museum should acquire a given piece. … The exhibit certainly could have done more to give us more of an insight, a peek, into these behind-the-scenes matters, but I suppose that ultimately that’s not really what the exhibit is about.
The exhibit does do a great job of attracting visitors regardless of their historical/geographic/stylistic interests, and forcing them to engage with works from other periods, places, and styles. For someone like myself, who spends most of his time in the Asian sections, it is a wonderful thing to be forced to look at other works; works which I find quite interesting, and quite beautiful, once I do go and look at them.
I was thinking of sharing some of my favorite images, but there are just too many, and would completely overwhelm the post, and take up far too much space.
The official page for the exhibition on the Museum’s website includes a full set of images of all the objects in the exhibition, behind-the-scenes videos, and lots of other good content.