Athens on Fifth Avenue

“This is not just a spiffing up of the galleries,” said Philippe de Montebello as he showed me around the renovated classical Greek section of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. De Montebello, the director of the Met, was about to leave for Athens, where he would describe the new Greek exhibit to the Ministry of Culture and invite the prime minister to attend the opening on April 20. “This is a way of rethinking the entire Greek heritage,” he continued. “It amounts to the appearance of a whole new museum in New York.” The refurbishing of the galleries that contain the Met’s classical collection is a major phase in the museum’s re-presentation of Western antiquity (from the prehistoric through the Hellenistic and Roman eras). In the spacious new arrangements of vitrines and pedestals and wall cases, the objects are mounted, lit, labeled in such a way that artifact speaks to artifact, each work explaining and explained by its neighbors—in terms of time, style, subject matter, culture, region, medium.

Those familiar with large collections of Greek vases—in Athens, say, or Boston—know how hard it is to maintain an alert attention to rows upon rows of pots (whether arranged in terms of shape, painter, or period). The new cases at the Met, says the classical art curator Carlos Picón, try to highlight a “star” of each space, with ancillary objects resonating to some aspect of its importance. Sporting artifacts may surround a vase with a scene of the games, or religious ones a scene of sacrifice. A case of small sculptures is unified by its reflection of Parthenon style. One case contains artifacts related to the theater, including a flask in the form of a bird-man which, by date, looks like a deliberate reference to the chorus figures in Aristophanes’ The Birds. It is the equivalent of Batman mugs given out at fast-food chains after the movie has appeared.

The paradox of the “new” galleries is that their greatest feature may be their oldest—what de Montebello calls “a great leap backwards.” This space was envisaged, near the beginning of this century, in a form that is only now being realized. The spine of the galleries is a long barrel-vaulted and skylighted space that was conceived by Edward Robinson, the first director of the Met who was also a classicist. He wanted to arrange all the classical antiquities in one area, laid out in chronological order, in and alongside the barrel-vaulted hall, to which a Roman-style atrium was added in 1926 for the display of Roman art. Before the first plan could be completed it was being subverted. The outbreak of the First World War prevented shipment of the limestone casing of the great gallery’s walls (they were painted to imitate stone). The chronological sequence of the exhibits was disrupted by the shifting of objects in and out of the galleries. Second World War air-raid rules sealed over the skylights in the barrel vault. The postwar crush of visitors led to conversion of…

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