Try Googling “best museums in the world,” and the results will include these 3 museums 99% of the time (in no particular order): the Louvre in Paris, the Vatican Museum in Rome, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Fondly known as “The Met” by New Yorkers, this colossal sanctuary of art history is undoubtedly one of the world’s greatest museums. Personally, I consider the Met the second greatest museum behind the Louvre: the Louvre has a much larger collection with some of my favorite works, though piece for piece the Met probably has higher quality. And if you include the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo’s Pieta, and Raphael’s salons in the Vatican Museum, a compelling case can be made that it belongs at the top. Regardless, the Met is universally regarded as one of the world’s elite museums, and is located just a short bus or subway ride away from our apartment.
Founded in 1870 by a group of wealthy financiers and artisans, the original collection contained less than 200 works. A mere 140 years and 2 million pieces later, the modern Met is situated in prime real estate in Central Park in the Upper East Side. The original location was in Midtown on 5th Avenue until it moved to its present location in the 1880s. With constant renovations and additions, the current Beaux-Arts building is significantly larger than the original, occupying about a quarter mile long stretch of land along the Park side of 5th Avenue. With a magnificent facade and entrance corridor, the Met is one of my favorite buildings in New York.
The biggest problem that confronts you upon entering the museum is figuring out where to go first. Realistically, the museum is far too large to see in a single day, so unless you plan on heading back multiple times your best bet is to pick your favorite sections and head for those. Living in New York makes it much easier: we just visit one particular section at a time, often spending only an hour or two. This is an economically viable option since you pay whatever you want for admission: the museum has a $20 “suggested donation,” but you can pay anything from a penny to a million bucks as long as you pay something. I tend to pay based on the amount of time I’m spending on a particular day. If I’m visiting only a couple of sections, I’ll pay $5; if I’m spending all day, I’ll pay the full $20.
If I had to recommend a few of my favorite sections for a single day visit, I would probably narrow it down to the armory, musical instruments, European paintings, European sculpture, and Roman/Greek collection. You’ll still miss a lot by seeing only these: the main thing you would miss is the Egyptian collection with a variety of mummies, sarcophagi, hieroglyphics, sattuaries, and a wonderful full-room display of the Temple of Dendur. You’ll also miss out on an excellent collection of Medieval art, Ancient Near Eastern art, Islamic art (probably the world’s best collection), African art, Asian art, the Costume Institute (also the world’s best), and the American painting, sculpture, and decorative art, by far the best in the country.
So my recommendation would be to pick what you must see, and for me that would start with the recently revamped Greek and Roman section. The British Museum in London is still tops in this department (it’s hard to beat an entire corridor dedicated to the pediment statues and friezes from the Parthenon), but the Met’s new section just edges out the Louvre for second best. With an excellent collection of well-preserved statues and an assortment of actual Roman rooms with their original frescoes, this collection is well worth the time. The display hall itself was renovated and re-oped in 2007, providing an open, well-lit viewing area in a Romanesque style that fits the type of art on display.
The armory is one of the most popular sections of the museum, highlighted by a parade of knights on horseback, their standards held high. This collection features armor and weaponry from every continent and very time period including ancient Greece and Rome, Japan, Asia, and Africa, with the most sizable collection from Medieval Europe. The exhibit focuses on ornate pieces, not all of which were intended for practical use. Even so, this popular section of the Met is one of the great armories in the world. Easily seen in an hour or so, the armory section is a must-see.
Just upstairs from the armory and overlooking the main “parade” display is the musical instrument section. Without question the world’s best collection of musical instruments through the ages, this exhibit is enjoyable for everyone, especially music lovers. Featuring primitive musical instruments from antiquity through the ornate Baroque instruments of Renaissance Europe, everyone will find something intriguing in this collection. My favorite is the amazing gold harpsicord at the end of the corridor.
My personal favorite section of the Met is the fantastic European painting and sculpture exhibits. The painting section, piece for piece, is arguably the world’s best in terms of overall quality. The Louvre boasts more total paintings and has some famous pieces such as the Mona Lisa and one of my personal favorites, the Oath of the Horatii by Jacques Louis David, but the quality of art in the Louvre is somewhat diluted by the number of unimportant works by relatively obscure French painters. My favorite painting museum is the National Gallery in London, which houses a small, but very high quality collection.
But the Met displays a fantastic variety of European paintings, including a handful of my favorite pieces. The Dutch collection is probably the world’s best (including the largest Vermeer collection in the world), and the Met owns the largest number of Goya and El Greco paintings outside the Prado in Madrid. I also like the layout of the paintings, as the exhibit is divided in two sections: the Medieval through mid-1800’s paintings are located on the second floor in front of the main staircase, with the later 19th century and 20th century works, including the Impressionist works, tucked away in a back section of the second floor. This separate section is the place for you if you enjoy the Impressionism of Monet, Renoir, along with the Pointilism of Seurat and a nice collection of van Gogh.
Some of my personal favorite works in the Met include a small collection of David pieces, notably the famous Death of Socrates and Portrait of Monsieur Lavoisier and his Wife. I also really like the Renoir collection, which is my favorite selection of his work. Florinda by Franz Xavier Winterhalter is also a great painting depicting the Visigoth king spying on a group of bathing beauties, ultimately leading to the Moorish invasion of Spain. Pierre Cot’s famous The Storm is a great Neo-classical work – a hand-painted replica adorns the wall of our apartment. I also like Poussin’s Abduction of the Sabine Women, along with The Fortune Teller and The Penitent Magdalene by Georges de la Tour. I also like the Self-portrait with Two Pupils by Adelaide Labille-Guiard.
The Met’s sculpture gallery is very good, but is still inferior to the Louvre and Vatican, and in terms of quality there are probably several sculpture galleries in Italy such as the Academy in Florence (home of Michelangelo’s David) and the Villa Borghese in Rome (best Bernini collection in the world) that have higher quality work. Even so, this is one of my favorite sections of the museum, and is highly recommended for its excellent figurative collection. Highlights include Perseus with the Head of Medusa by Italian great Canova, located at the top of the main staircase. Other great pieces include the Bernini masterpiece Bacchanal: a Faun Teased by Children, and Triton by Bologna.
While you’re enjoying the sculptures, take a stroll through the European decorative arts collection, easily on par with the Louvre as the world’s best. They have entire rooms transported from Italy, Germany, France, and England with the original furnishings, or at least original pieces from the same time period. There is an interesting timepiece collection with some fascinating original clocks dating to the 17th century in addition to the many vases, jewels, and other ornamental pieces.
Finally, if you happen to be in New York during the Christmas season, visiting the superb Met Christmas tree is an absolute must. With original hand-crafted Neapolitan ornaments and Nativity pieces all dating to the 18th century, this candle-lit display is magnificent. Set in a Medieval gallery with looming stone walls and Gothic statuaries, the candles and soft music provide a ghostly yet contemplative ambience. Of the many Christmas trees and Nativities I’ve seen, the Met display is by far the best.
Of the many “tourist” sites in New York, the Metropolitan Museum ranks high on anyone’s list. With a breadth and quality of art that ranks among the elite art institutions of the world, the Met provides a fascinating glimpse into other eras and cultures that will please everyone.