May 22, 2007

What makes the Met a great museum?

Posted at 1:01 pm in Similar cases

Philippe de Montebello, director of the Met takes a similar line of reasoning to Neil MacGregor at the British Museum regarding the significance of the concept of universal museums. He has progressed further than the British Museum though in returning some artefacts, notably the Euphronios Krater although he still remains oddly blasé & unrepentent about the whole issue.

The Independent

21 May 2007 13:15
Philippe de Montebello: Beauty and the eye of the beholder
What makes a great museum? The collections within it, says Philippe de Montebello. He should know, he’s been director of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art for the past 30 years. Interview by Elizabeth Heathcote
Published: 20 May 2007

I think the answer to what makes a great museum is irreducible – it is the collections. The activities, the programmes, the exhibitions, the educational materials – all of these things are ancillary to the collections. If a museum does not have great works of art it is simply not worth visiting. You could put on the most beautiful or timely programmes, but without great works their reach will only be local.

Think of a traveller in London. They will visit the British Museum and the National Gallery without asking what is on now, which is an extra; they are going for the collections. You don’t go to Madrid and say: “I am not going to the Prado because they don’t have an exhibition of Impressionists.”

When we travel we look for the great seats of culture and history. A museum places you within the culture that you are visiting, even if the works are not from that culture. Every museum, every country and every city has a different approach to presenting things. Works of art are all different; they all have their own individuality and personality.

Seeking out culture is part of the magic of travel. You may live in a city and rarely visit its museums and sights. I know a great many Parisians who have never been to the top of the Eiffel Tower; that is human nature. But there is something about travel that takes us on to a different level, that opens us up to culture.

Travel gives you a relatively small amount of time in a place that you may not revisit, and it is instinctive to want to see as many of the sights that make that city famous as possible. That is what triggers the travel, after all. Why would you take a plane to New York if it were not to see different things from what surrounds you every day? And the different things in New York are the skyscrapers, the Statue of Liberty and the Metropolitan Museum.

Of course you can create a marvellous environment for the collections. I hope that anyone travelling to New York would want to see the Met because they have heard that one enters the place with a sense of awe and wonder. Because the collections are not only first-class but they are presented with calculated drama. I say calculated because the lighting and sense of éclat must not pre-empt or dominate the work of art. If you can have harmony between an exciting presentation, a clear interpretation of works of art, you have achieved that ultimate dialogue between curator and visitor, and that is the heart of the museum experience.

When you go to national museums such as the National Archaeological Museum in Athens or the Villa Giulia National Museum in Rome, you see the art of that country. When you go to universal museums, like the Museumsinsel in Berlin or the Metropolitan, what you see is great encyclopaedic collections. The art of the world is under one roof – a constellation of museums under one roof. You can see all the civilisations of mankind and you can make the comparisons and the contrasts. It is the ultimate family tree where everyone can find their own roots. It is a journey in its own right.

At the Met, there is art from everywhere. It is an encyclopaedia with no missing letter. Yet it is American. Some of the great private American collections have been donated to the museum. This creates depth and a certain flavour. The Morgan collection, the Lehman collection, the Wrightsman collection, the Havemeyer collection – these reflect the Americans who put them together. The Wrightsman rooms, for example, are the period rooms of the French 18th century, yet uniquely American. A recreation of the old world, which the old world has not felt the same necessity to re-create.

After 30 years, my stamp lies in placing a great emphasis on the collections and the clarity of their presentation. I hope a visitor to the Met feels a certain seriousness of purpose but without pedantry, a sense of the institution’s authority but without authoritarianism, that there is a guiding intelligence in the way the works are presented.

I have lived in America for 50 years now. I feel like an American, but like a Frenchman at the same time. I have taken advantage of the two cultures that animate me. The thing about America that inspires me is the tremendous freedom of choice and action that one has, the real meritocracy that it is, and that is reflected in the museum. One can take a great many risks and go on many adventures without incurring, if some of them fail, opprobrium and sanction on the part of one’s trustees. Without risk, there is only boredom and matter-of-fact results.

There is probably more freedom in American than European museums. In London, Paris, Madrid, Rome, Berlin, the museums are state-funded so there is an element of the political scene and changing governments’ influence to a certain degree on what museums are like. The Musée d’Orsay in Paris was the creation of a Socialist government, done under Mitterrand, and there was a very distinctly politically correct agenda of egalitarianism in the presentation of the collections. In this country, whether we elect a Democrat or a Republican makes absolutely no difference to the art institutions.

The Met is funded largely by private donations and gifts and also, for some of its operating costs by the city of New York, and a little bit by the state of New York, but not, except for an occasional grant, by the federal government. The great strength of an American museum is that you do not have one master to whom you are indebted: you have thousands. You have tremendous freedom.

Travellers are critical for us. More than 40 per cent of our audience is from abroad. We make a considerable effort to make our presence known, attending conferences of travel writers, putting material in airports and hotels. When you come, there are details in six or seven languages, a foreign information desk where people speak a dozen different languages.

I travel a lot with my work, always very short trips, but I always make a point of visiting museums both out of a professional conscience and also simply for pleasure – I enjoy museums. It is very hard to pick out favourites; there are so many. I like small museums because very often the large museums, through their encyclopaedic nature, on a certain level resemble each other whereas a lot of the smaller museums have pretty much remained as they were when they were founded and tend to have trem endous character.

The Frick Collection in New York is one of those. Dulwich Picture Gallery in south London is another. It has a wonderful collection. It doesn’t change much and they don’t do much in terms of acquisition but it has wonderful pictures and they are beautifully shown. It has its own character, and nice light. The Museo Poldi Pezzoli in Milan, the Musée Jacquemart-André in Paris – these are wonderful museums with their own character. I seek out museums in smaller communities, smaller cities.

Most of the important cities in America are fortunate enough to have good museums. Fort Worth, for example, has several museums, including the Kimbell Art Museum, which, because it has a very rich endowment has been able to build a remarkable collection of individual masterpieces.

I do not have a favourite work. Every day, one’s favourite work is a different one – it depends on mood. There are far too many individual masterpieces that at one point or another can be one’s favourite. My favourite place in my own museum changes too. Right now I spend a lot of time in the New Greek and Roman Galleries. I suspect I will over time too, not just because they are new but because they are spectacular. But my preference varies from one day to the next.

It is hard to imagine a serious city without culture. One of the primary reasons that people visit New York, in addition to its being a vibrant city is its great art institutions – not just the Met but the Museum of Modern Art and many others. The theatres, the Metropolitan Opera, Carnegie Hall – this culture prolongs your stay in New York and makes it rich and rewarding.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in on Fifth Avenue at 82nd Street in Manhattan (001 800 965 4827; For more information about New York City contact NYC&Co (

My top small gallery

The Frick Collection (001 212 288 0700; information) is one of my favourite small museums and I visit often. Like many small museums it has tremendous character and is completely digestible in one visit. It is devoted exclusively to one culture – Western art – and has a great collection of paintings. There is something magical each time I go there because of individual works of art, including the greatest Bellini in America, the St Francis.

My top new collections

The New Greek and Roman Galleries are a museum within The Metropolitan Museum of Art. These are entirely new, a grand architectural statement with a soaring, two-storey atrium. The light-filled, airy spaces are installed with thousands of works of art from the Met’s superb classical collection that were not previously on view, and in such a way that they can be seen clearly, cleanly, and beautifully for the first time. So, our visitors can now take an exhilarating journey through the art of the classical world.

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