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The Met Museum in New York is a treasure trove of art, filled with masterpieces of human creativity, but what if it *wasn't* organized geographically or by time period? Is there a better way?

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When you walk into an art museum, especially one as large as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, there is a lot to process.  In fact, there are two million square feet to process in their Fifth Avenue building alone, not to mention the Met Cloisters or the Met Breuer.  After you clear security, navigate the crowd, figure out the admission fee, grab a map and finally duck into a gallery, it's likely that you will not be thinking about the overall layout and organization of the museum.  More likely, your attention will be sucked in immediately by a particular exhibition or an astounding object.  You dive into the world of the object until you turn your attention to another amazing object and then another in the next gallery and you pick your way from room to room, around the world and through time and suddenly, hours have passed.  Your blood sugar has plummeted and a kind guard tells you the museum is closing.  It's only later that you can zoom out and really think about the building and these spaces and what they're telling us about art history, whether we're conscious of it or not.

The Met is what's called an encyclopedic art museum, whose goal is to represent a broad spectrum of places and times and kinds of objects, and there are more than 2 million objects in the Met's collection, only a portion of which is on view at any one time.  The objects are divided into 17 departments, each overseen by people trained in that subject area, who work together to present and represent these objects in ways designed to tell you something about how and why they were made.  Together, it adds up to a more nuanced story than if you were to see any one item alone and they change things around, rename departments, and collaborate on temporary exhibitions that mix up the collection in new ways.

This way makes a lot of sense.  You're able to take a relatively deep dive into a geographic location or a time in history or focus on one amazing piece with the benefit of seeing comparable or contemporaneous works around it.  

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Like it's helpful to see David's neoclassical masterpiece "The Death of Socrates" in the context of other history painting from 18th century Europe, because it gives you a sense of what the people around him were doing and how, during the Enlightenment, artists were resurrecting stories from the past to solidify and promote their own ideals, and there's a comfort to being able to return to this place again and again and know exactly, or at least roughly, where to find that fetching ancient Egyptian couple that always makes you happy.

But there are some drawbacks to this approach.  Once a collection is formed and catalogued and settled into its space, it becomes more difficult and costly to move it, rearrange it, and reconsider it in light of new approaches to presenting history.  Most art history departments in University organize themselves in similar ways to museums, training the next generation in such a way that mostly keeps to the same categories and classifications, but do we do the art and objects a favor by grouping them by department and designing highly particular spaces for them or are we locking them into a distinct narrative that it becomes harder and harder to see past?

These divisions by category might make it more challenging for us to see similarities between cultures over time and also give the impression that geographic borders between regions are firm and distinct, the cultures within them contained and definable.  Many of the artists whose works hang in these spaces were influenced by travel, by art and traditions from around the world.  To return to "The Death of Socrates", it could be interesting to see the painting next to ancient Greek sculpture or in the context of other artworks through time that address sacrificing one's life for one's beliefs, or in the context of art from the Islamic world which deeply informed Enlightenment thinking.  

Temporary exhibitions do highlight these relationships, but usually the works too quickly migrate back home to their safe space in the permanent collection galleries.  Okay, so suspend disbelief with me for a moment.  What if we emptied out the Met and started over from scratch?  

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First, we'd obviously want to leave it empty for a couple of months and let everybody come in and see those two million square feet emptied of all the art.  And plants.  We'd take out the plants, too.  You'd be able to better grasp the architectural history the museum has to tell, the collision of classical and modern styles like where the west facade of the original 1880 building is visible through the framing of this 1975 courtyard designed by (?~4:31).  

This is a museum of art, but it's also a museum of museums in a sense, stepping us through changing approaches to how we display art and build and adapt structures to house it.  After it's empty for a while, the galleries could be reinstalled any number of ways.  Rather than geographic groupings, the museum could be reorganized by alternating themes.  Landscapes through time and space.  Couples throughout history.  Eating and drinking.  The naked and the nude.  Revolution and war.  We could organize the collection from smallest to largest object or put modern art in the Greek galleries and Greek art in the modern galleries.  Or we could devise an algorithm that randomly selects a group of artworks from the collection that will fit into a given space.  It could be organized by material, chronologically by the year it was added to the collection. 

You get a glimpse of what this might look like with the programming that's going on over at the Met Breuer, the brutalist building that used to house the Whitney Museum of Art and now hosts exhibitions that draw from the Met's collection of 20th and 21st century art.  Here, they're taking a more global approach, combining newer and older works in imaginative ways.  Their current show, "Like Life" brings together artworks from 1300 to the present in which artists have tried to replicate the human body.  It's fresh, it's fascinating, and it's a reminder that we humans have been preoccupied with some of the same ideas for a very long time.  

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You can also simulate these kinds of alternative groupings just by exploring the Met's collection online using their search filters to envision all kinds of thematic shows and ways to organize the museum, because barring extreme disaster, the Met is never gonna do this.  It would be absurdly expensive, recklessly unsafe for a lot of the art, really impractical, and most of the staff would probably quit.

It's easy for me to sit here from afar and list its flaws, but it's still the Met and it's full of astounding feats of human creation that you're lucky to be able to see once, much less again and again.  It's true that the Met's structure, organization, and complex of buildings are relics of the past.  That's part of its appeal and there are new models for museums cropping up around the world, casting off these categories and actively working to bridge disciplines, but the Met and other encyclopedic museums still very much exist.  They're still charged with protecting these objects and are entrusted to share this material with us and with our great, great, great, great, great, great grandchildren and people are still visiting these museums.  Millions of us every year pick up a map and choose our own adventure through these vast spaces.

Our role in this is key, primarily in the way we choose to pay attention while we're in a museum.  You can take a formal tour where the guide does the jumping through time and space for you, charting different journeys to focus on music, fashion, sculpture, or any number of themes that cross through departments and galleries.  There are also really awesome externally organized tours like the completely unofficial and definitely unlicensed Boy Wizard Tour of the Met.  The group Museum Hack leads that one and you can find them in other cities, too.

Even without a docent or audio guide, you can challenge yourself to find all the hands you can in a set of galleries or feet or fruit or flowers.  You can search for weapons, adornment.  You can focus on display techniques.  The barries and plinths and gritty floor tape and signage, all designed to protect you from the art and the art from you.  

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You can look at the people around you, observe how they look at the art, how long they stay at each object, eavesdrop on their conversations.  You can spy on the guards, notice their patterns.  You can select a room and force yourself to stay there for an hour, because even if the art stays in the same place, the way you move through it can be different every time.  You can return to the Met weekly for the rest of your life and never really know it, always finding surprises.  It's not a terrible metaphor, actually, for how we navigate our real lives, how we sometimes float along, adhering to the structures and systems around us, but also how we work against those structures and systems, figure out ways around them, and try to reform and refashion them.

How would you remake the Met?  What kind of stories could it tell that it's not already telling, and more generally, how should we share the nuanced tale of human creativity and what kinds of structures can help us do that?  Let's talk about it in the comments.

If you're interested in absorbing a nuanced and global tale of human creativity without even leaving your house, you should check out Civilizations, the new series produced by PBS and the BBC that tells the story of art from the dawn of human history to the present day.  It's a rigorous and thoughtful and mind-expanding look at how art and creativity helped forge our societies and cultures.  Click the links in the description below to find out more.

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