Museum  March 11, 2020  Ed Gunts

The Met Unveils $22 Million British Decorative Arts Galleries

Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photo by Joseph Coscia

Installation view of The Met’s New British Galleries, 17th Century Gallery, Cassiobury Staircase, February 2020.

As a highlight of its 150th anniversary celebration, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art this month unveiled the results of a $22 million renovation of the 10 rooms that make up the Galleries for British Decorative Arts and Design, marking the completion of a multi-year effort to “reimagine” the museum’s extensive collection and the way it’s displayed.

Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photo by Joseph Coscia

Installation view of The Met’s New British Galleries, Croome Court Tapestry Room, February 2020.

Officially known as the Annie Laurie Aitken and Josephine Mercy Heathcote Galleries, and closed since 2016, the redesigned galleries occupy 11,000 square feet of space and feature nearly 700 works of British decorative arts, design and sculpture created between 1500 and 1900. It’s one of the most comprehensive accumulations of British silver, furniture, tapestry, textiles and ceramics outside Great Britain, including works from the Tudor, Stuart, Georgian and Victorian periods.

The galleries not only look different, but they have gained a “design narrative,” a storyline that provides a fresh perspective on the period and gives visitors new ways to understand the art and objects before them. It’s a narrative that’s “centered on the intersection of creativity and entrepreneurialism” on the part of British artists, artisans, and manufacturers, as Met Director Max Hollein puts it.

Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Hanging depicting a European conflict in South India, before 1763. Indian, Coromandel Coast, for British Market. Cotton, plain weave (drawn and painted resist and mordant, dyed). 116 3/4 x 103 in.

“Especially on the occasion of The Met’s 150th anniversary, we are thinking deeply about the stories told in our galleries and how every object on display is an outstanding work of art but also embodies a history that can be read from multiple perspectives,” Hollein said in a statement. For example, “a beautiful English teapot speaks to both the prosperous commercial economy and the exploitative history of the tea trade. The curators have created a new narrative for the galleries that sheds light on four centuries of extraordinary artistic achievement alongside the realities of colonial rule. The result is a thoughtful examination of the British Empire and its astonishing artistic legacy.”

“Our aim is to present British decorative arts, sculpture and design beyond royal and country house patronage, focusing on the ways craftsmen and manufacturers had to think outside the box, how to use new technologies, and how to market themselves,” said  Wolf Burchard, The Met’s Associate Curator of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts.

Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Designed by Bruce J. Talbert (British, 1838–1881), Manufactured by Holland & Sons (British, 1843–1942), Sideboard, known as The Pericles Dressoir, 1866. Oak, inlaid with ebony, walnut, boxwood, amaranth, carved and gilded; brass fittings. 128 × 113 × 30 in.

Finally, The Met wanted to test new ways of making art more relevant and compelling to 21st century patrons, by displaying it differently. To do so, curators brought in two experts from the retail and restaurant worlds–Robin Standefer and Stephen Alesch of Roman and William Buildings and Interiors–to bring a retailer’s eye and sensibility to exhibit design in a museum setting.

Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Camillo Pistrucci (Italian, 1811–1854), Mary Shelley (1797–1851), 1843. Marble. 25 3/8 in., 107 lb.

“Our important collections deserve to be presented with the grandeur of opera and the spectacle of cinema,” said Sarah Lawrence, the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Curator in charge of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts. “In order to best engage our visitors, the museum galleries must astound and excite the audience…These galleries set a new standard for The Met.”

Before the renovation, the British Galleries were perhaps most memorable for showing three period rooms from 18th century estates, and for their collection of objects from the Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, Neoclassical and neo-Gothic periods.

Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photo by Joseph Coscia

Installation view of The Met’s New British Galleries, Lansdowne Dining Room, February 2020.

While the objects were remarkable, the galleries had several drawbacks. They were relatively dark and static, veering on musty. They told a narrow story, primarily from the point of view of the landed gentry. And they were hard to find within the museum because they lacked a prominent entrance.

courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Attributed to Harry Powell (British, 1853–1922), Made by James Powell and Sons, Manufactured by Whitefriars Glassworks (British, 1834–1980), Fan-shaped Vase, ca. 1890. Glass. 8 1/16 x 6 5/8 x 3 1/16 in.

Though they occupy the same footprint as before, the galleries now have a new layout, starting with a different entrance that provides direct access from the museum’s Medieval Sculpture Hall. From there, visitors proceed along a path that fits into a larger chronological order within the museum, starting with the Tudors and ending with the Victorians, then exiting into a main corridor that leads to the American Wing. The collection itself has been reorganized and expanded to support the new design narrative. 

“As you walk through the galleries today, you will be astonished by the vast array of beautiful objects, and your attention will be caught by the engrossing story these objects tell,” Lawrence said. Beyond that, “your experience will be shaped by the architectural differentiation of each gallery, in which scale and detail signal your advancement from century to century.”  

Instead of mostly showing how wealthy people lived and what they owned, as the previous galleries did, the reconfigured rooms also highlight the emergence of the middle class and its appetite for “luxury” goods and products.

Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photo by Joseph Coscia

Installation view of The Met’s New British Galleries, 17th Century Gallery, Cassiobury Staircase, February 2020.

One highlight is an exquisitely restored wooden staircase that was transported from an 17th Century estate called Cassiobury House, a previously roped-off object that visitors could look at but not ascend. It has been relocated and reconstructed so people can now go up one flight and experience its carved detailing close up.

Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photo by Joseph Coscia

Installation view of The Met’s New British Galleries, Tea Trade and Empire Gallery, February 2020.

Another bright spot is a gallery devoted to Tea, Trade and Empire, which uses more than 100 English teapots to help tell the story of the country’s entrepreneurial spirit and rise in prosperity. The teapots are displayed in two 10-foot-tall glass tea towers that not only enable visitors to see them from all angles but show just how many ways one can design a teapot. The array has become a symbol for the entire exhibit.

In honor of the makeover, the Met Store has gone all in on tea-related items, stocking shelves with teapots, tea cups, tea towels and tea-themed note cards. The Met Store even partnered with master tea blenders Harney & Sons to develop a keepsake tea selection inspired by the renovated galleries.

About the Author

Ed Gunts

Ed Gunts is the former architecture critic of The Baltimore Sun.

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