New York Stories and Tips

The Metropolitan Museum of Art - one of America's great museums

The African wing of the Met Photo, New York, New York

"Are you on your own?"
"Yes", I replied a little nervously.
"OK, I'll take you up there.."

I followed the guy to the elevator where he asked to be taken to the roof. He was a staff member at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a few minutes before, I had approached him and asked where the elevator to the roof gardens was situated. To my chagrin, he said that they were not open yet, but as I was on my own, he said he would take me up there. He said the gardens were due to be opened in May anyway and they must have finished the alterations by now. The gardens themselves were just a terrace dotted with modern art and in the summer it must be a great place for parties. But it was the view I was interested in.

The whole of Central Park was spread out below me. To the west was a verdant green canopy stretching for miles (see photo). Towering above the vegetation were the giant art-deco apartment blocks of Central Park West. This met at a right angle with 59th Street with another set of skyscrapers which connected with Fifth Avenue. Yellow cabs could be seen far below moving like ants. The spear of an Egyptian obelisk could be seen above the park canopy, as could the vast expanses of the great lawn and numerous cherry trees giving the park a splash of bright pink. And best of all, I had the view all to myself.

The premier museum in New York, maybe even America, is this one and whatever it is, it is worth a day's exploration. And you will be knocked sideways by the sheer variety and quality of its exhibits. When I first clapped eyes on it I couldn't quite believe the size and it stretches for four blocks along the eastern periphery of Central Park amongst the brownstones of the patrician Upper East Side. To get there, take the subway to 86th Street station and head west two blocks crossing Park Avenue. The grandiose structure overwhelms like all good museums and admittance is $12. Plan your time, wear comfortable shoes and take regular breaks - this is one hell of a museum.

Once past the doors you are in the Great Hall. Balustrades wind around the roof, its marble floors echo and corridors shoot off in every direction. Most people head straight for the Egyptian galleries, but I headed west to the Greek and Roman galleries. These were impressive with a number of statues including Caligula and Agrippina. Further on is the African area which consisted of huge picture windows looking over Central Park along with canoes, wicker heads and totems. But the "Met" really gets into its stride with the European section. The treasures here brought from the continent by the 19th Century 'robber barons' JP Morgan and Andrew Carnegie. They bought up entire churches and rooms wholesale and shipped them to New York City. This maze-like area is fronted by Rodins 'Burghers of Calais' (see photo) and then moved on with objet d'art after objet d'art. On show was French second empire furniture, English stained-glass windows, Italian sculpture, Dutch masters and German portraiture. I entered Parisian salons covered in 'vert anglais' wallpaper and Louis Quinze chairs -- many taken from Versailles just before the Revolution.

At one point a huge wrought iron gate dominated a gallery. This looked familiar but I couldn't place it so I had a word with the curmudgeon of a museum attendant and he told me it was a 'coro' (choir stall) from Valladolid Cathedral. Yes, I remember now, I had seen the same in Toledo cathedral. In fact in another room they had imported an entire Spanish courtyard along with windows, doorsteps and flagstones. It didn't stop there -- there were mahogany beams from Holland, dusty Venetian parlours and the Georgian elegance of London's Lansdowne house. A totally authentic aristocratic English drawing room with portraits of George IV and Wellington staring back at me. But the 'star' of the 'Met' is the Egyptian section. This is in the eastern part of the museum and you pass along corridors lined with hieroglyphics. But the big attraction is the 'Temple of Dendur' -- a fully realised Egyptian temple in the middle of the museum. Huge windows look onto Central Park and is surrounded by a moat of water. It was a gift from the Egyptian government to say thank you to the Americans for moving Abu Simbel to higher ground. It seemed too perfect to be 4,000 years old but as you looked around the chipped walls you could see graffiti that had survived down the ages.

But everyone’s favourite seemed to be the arms and armour section where kids delight in macabre medieval weapons of war. The room was filled with cases of shields, swords, axes and morning stars and there were bulky Italian, German and English suits of armour on show. At the back there is really weird Japanese samurai armour, which looked like aliens from another planet. And there is a useful staircase to show you the European art upstairs. This array of art is world class and I picked my choices carefully. Guardi's watercolour of a dilapidated Venice caught my eye as did his 'building of Westminster Bridge'. There were self-portraits of Vermeer and Rhembrandt and El Greco's 'Vision of Toledo' was stunning with a nightmarish sky above the Spanish city - dark and horrific.

I didn't get to the American section which is meant to be impressive. But I left the "Met" with the impression that this museum is up there with the greats. It is definitely, in sheer treasures, the best in America -- and can hold its own against 'The Prado', the 'BM' and even the Louvre. With the 'Temple of Dendur’, you have a star attraction in the same league as the 'Elgin Marbles', 'The Kiss' or 'Guernika'. There is a sense of 'chequebook' collecting, where the robber barons shipped over entire cultures from Europe, but with its modern facelift it is a museum to be proud of. I for one will never forget being shown the roof garden and the amazing views of Central Park. It was one of the highlights of my trip.

You cannot come to New York and not go to the Met. It is world class . . .

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