As with any major undertaking at one of the world’s largest museums, the renovation of the British Galleries mobilized nearly two dozen internal departments. Experts in conservation and scientific research began examining every item destined for display, removing dust and other impurities and in some cases doing much more; a marble-topped table designed by Robert Adam in 1765 that had lost its garlands was given matching resin replacements after curators unearthed the original drawing for it in the collection of London’s Sir John Soane’s Museum. An embroidered silk waistcoat arrived from the Met’s Costume Institute. New acquisitions, including Chinese artist Amoy Chinqua’s sculpture of a knobby-kneed European merchant, were entered by a curatorial collections manager.
Throughout the 10 galleries, construction and facilities staff updated systems for air handling and lighting, consulting with Hervé Descottes of L’Observatoire International, a past collaborator with both the Met and Roman and Williams. The firm has simulated different seasons and times of day in two of the three historical interiors—a winter’s evening in the neoclassical Lansdowne House dining room, a summer afternoon at rococo Kirtlington Park. The museum’s publications and editorial departments composed interpretive text, finishing the bulk of it a year in advance to ensure that the design department had time to produce labels and wall panels. Thirteen trustees, foundations or estates made gifts to the effort, with further contributions earmarked for acquisitions. At $22 million, the new British Galleries are far from the costliest of the Met’s capital projects; these include the renovation of galleries for the arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas ($70 million) and the replacement of deteriorating skylights above European paintings ($150 million—Hollein will have a bird’s-eye view from his office). All three pale beside the rebuilding of the modern and contemporary galleries, a $500 million undertaking conceived in 2014 by architect David Chipperfield and shelved three years later as the Met addressed a yawning budget deficit. A construction date has not been rescheduled.
“If you look at the past two years and the next eight to 10 years, it’s probably a billion dollars we’ll invest in refreshing our galleries,” Hollein says. “So it’s part of that momentum.” When asked about the uptick in spending over just three years ago, when a budget shortfall contributed to his predecessor’s resignation, Hollein replies, “The Met has always been carried by a great amount of philanthropy. With philanthropy also comes a certain level of ambition— ambition to move forward, enhance, expand, grow. This museum has grown significantly.” He mentions the Met’s gradual push into Central Park and the city’s curtailment of further expansion, but not the recent stride down Madison Avenue into a lease of the former headquarters of the Whitney Museum of American Art, a move that was costlier than the Met anticipated. The pain will ease this fall when the Frick Collection is scheduled to assume a sublease. “Our footprint is set,” Hollein says with a smile. “To enhance our facilities, we are working from within.”
This has been the case with the British Galleries,which have occupied a central location—if a baffling one to find—since their inception. When probes were done prior to demolition, it was discovered that one of the exhibition rooms backed up to an access point in the Medieval Sculpture Hall, the spine of the modernday museum. The layout was reconfigured to make a new entrance, allowing visitors to move from a roomful of 15th-century Virgins balancing the Christ child on their hips into the cozy, circa-1600 paneled home of a Norfolk merchant in just a few steps.
Alesch sweated over the design for this transition, which would kick off a sequence of galleries meant to convey the shifting weather patterns of four turbulent centuries.
“It’s drizzly in Norfolk,” he says, glancing into the sludge-brown room. The mood brightens around the Cassiobury staircase, which rises to a mezzanine level flanked by cases of ceramics and spangly textiles, and intensifies in a nearby gallery stippled in oceanic blue, where ivory candelabras and other plunder from Britain’s international trade are gradually being installed. Standefer crosses the soaring 18th-century gallery—painted a shade she calls “Enlightened lavender gray”—to check out a marble bust of Elizabeth I ensnared in cellophane. A beauxarts- style arch (part of the Met’s original building, another demolition discovery) leads to enticements brought about by the Industrial Revolution, presented in galleries that look to be lifted out of storefronts along London’s Regent Street.
As the weekly meetings progressed and Standefer talked through design issues with curators, Alesch would often be sitting at the table drawing, reflecting the couple’s habitual division of labor. Inevitably, their projects in and out of the museum began to merge. Roman and Williams had a store concept in development, and the couple’s immersion in the byways of British craft soon presented a name for it: Roman and Williams Guild. (It opened in 2017, in SoHo.) After making a visit one morning to the Met’s teapot collection, which numbers about 700, the designers suggested a common retail display tactic: massing the brightly glazed ceramics rather than presenting one most excellent example.
“First, imagine us in the storeroom, trying to be well-behaved,” Standefer says, putting her hands together in mock supplication. “We were almost passed out.” They persuaded curators that grouping the teapots would tell an excellence story of a different kind, one that featured a nascent British pottery industry in competition to win business and delight a new middle class with goods alternately ravishing, humorous, politically contentious or outright vulgar. “Sometimes you do want to see things that are not just the top 10 hits,” Alesch says. “People want to hear the outtakes. They want the B sides, the rough cuts.” “That was our eureka,” Standefer says. “And the Met went with us on that ride.”
Throughout the renovation, the curatorial team continued making acquisitions to color in the narrative. Significant works by women, unsigned vernacular pieces and objects made for the retail market rather than royal consumption entered the collection. In 2014, Syson was given the chance to buy a marble carving of a Maltese terrier by Anne Seymour Damer, considered the first female professional sculptor in Britain. Animal portraits were one of the few areas in which a female artist was allowed to work in the 18th century, and he thought the luxuriantly- locked piece, with its Koons-puppy curls, would be a way into a lesser-known world. “One of the trustees said I’d brought the Met to a new low,” he recalls, laughing. “But now, having a work by a leading sculptor who happens to be a woman feels like exactly the right thing.” Funding for the purchase was provided by Barbara Walters, who sat next to Syson at a dinner party and offered to pay for it in memory of Cha Cha, her deceased Havanese.
In the second half of 2018, with an opening date in sight that would jibe with the museum’s 150th anniversary this year, both Syson and Alcorn departed for other jobs. The project continued under Sarah Lawrence and Wolf Burchard, a new associate curator and lead for the British Galleries. “What you see is really 97 percent their work,” Burchard says. “The only thing I have contributed to the narrative is this idea of internationalism and the complex relationship between Britain and continental Europe.” He mentions religious persecutions that brought Protestant craftsmen to Britain from France and Flanders, and economic motivations that drew enterprising artists from Italy. “The elephant in the room, of course, is that when we are reopening the British Galleries in 2020, Britain itself is currently reassessing its relationship to continental Europe and indeed other parts of the world,” Burchard says.
Hollein also touches on Brexit in the context of the British Galleries but adds that such historical ironies are inevitable when 400 years of history are in play. More interesting, he says, is an analogy between Britain in its expansionist phase and the Met. “The British Empire and colonialism is a certain idea about the world suddenly becoming much larger, and trying to understand the whole thing. An encyclopedic museum is all about that.” He stops to take a sip of water from a cardboard carton. “You can examine some of these motifs—and the way of absorbing a culture and misunderstanding a culture. You can see all this in the new British Galleries, and you can also see it in the history of the museum.”