“Those of us who run the museums, run them for the benefit of the public, all the public.”
Philippe de Montebello, Director, The Metropolitan Museum of Art from 1977 to 2008.
(February 2010)—The extraordinary legacy of Philippe de Montebello, who served for 31 years as Director of The Metropolitan Museum Art, is chronicled in GREAT MUSEUMS: AN ACQUIRING MIND: PHILIPPE de MONTEBELLO AND THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART. Debuted on public television stations nationwide in February 2010, this one-hour special is presented in High Definition and is narrated by renowned broadcast journalist and NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg.
During his tenure, Mr. de Montebello guided the acquisition of more than 84,000 works of art from around the globe, demanded innovation in conservation techniques and oversaw the doubling of the physical size of this world-renowned cultural institution. At the same time, he orchestrated some 30 special exhibits a year, and museum attendance surged to nearly five million annual visitors.
The French-born, Harvard-educated de Montebello brought a background in European painting to his first job as Curatorial Assistant at the Met. When he took over as Director in 1977, the Met was already well established as a distinct showcase for European art and respected as one of the world’s great museums.
Under Philippe de Montebello’s leadership, the museum’s Eurocentric collection grew to represent all continents, all cultures, and all eras, enabling the museum to present a panoramic view of the world’s art history over time. Today, more than two million objects, compromising an encyclopedic treasury of world art, are contained in The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s ever-growing collection.
According to de Montebello, “The expertise of our curators is the element that provides me, when I make a judgment, with the comfort to reinforce my own convictions about an object.”
The acquisition process at The Metropolitan Museum of Art is an art form unto itself. Identifying outstanding works of art for the Met is the job of nearly 100 curators and curatorial assistants. Working with researchers, scientists and conservators, they locate, authenticate and propose the acquisition of pieces to enhance the Met’s collection. From painted Buddhist banners to medieval manuscripts to the gowns presented in the Costume Institute, de Montebello oversees the requests for purchases from every department.
GREAT MUSEUMS: AN ACQUIRING MIND: PHILIPPE de MONTEBELLO AND THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART also showcases the painstaking efforts taken to preserve and/or restore objects that will eventually be on display for millions of museum visitors. “Our fundamental purpose in being a repository for the great works of art, and the heritage of mankind, is to preserve it for this and future generations” says de Montebello.
The Met’s conservators balance the need to restore with the responsibility to preserve a piece’s original condition. The key to conservation, according to Marjorie Shelley, the Sherman Fairchild Conservator in Charge of Paper Conservation: “We never want anything to look new. We want the signs of age to be present.”
During the Philippe de Montebello years, The Metropolitan Museum of Art nearly doubled in physical size. “For me, it was then a matter, with these growing collections, of creating the right galleries to house them,” recalls de Montebello. “You can’t just have the same vitrine, the same shaped doors, the same everything to present the art of the world.”
In 2007, the year de Montebello announced his retirement, the Met opened new, renovated and expanded galleries throughout the museum, including the Greek and Roman Galleries, the American Classical Galleries, the Wrightsman Galleries for French Decorative Arts, and the Native North American art and Oceanic art galleries.
Over the years, the physical expansion of the museum and the on-going acquisition of priceless works of art were due in large part to partnerships with the Met’s many generous benefactors. For example, Brooke Astor’s love for China blossomed into the creation of The Astor Court, an authentic Chinese scholar’s garden built by Chinese workmen hand-selected to work on the project. Walter and Leonore Annenberg were involved with the Met for more than 40 years. Their personal collection included 53 works by the greatest artists of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Philippe de Montebello worked closely with the Annenbergs over the course of his tenure, and eventually they bequeathed their entire collection to the Met—the largest single gift of art to the museum in more than half a century.
To honor the Met’s retiring director in fall 2008, the curatorial staff and Trustees mounted The Philippe de Montebello Years exhibition. The exhibition demonstrated the breadth of his influence over the Met’s vast collections.
“We were honored to document such a pinnacle moment in the grand history of The Metropolitan Museum of Art,” noted Marc Doyle, executive producer of Great Museums. “Philippe de Montebello changed the face of American museums throughout his tenure, and his achievements are the centerpiece of this compelling and engaging Great Museums episode. It will be a must-see for the public television viewer – especially those who are interested in the inner-workings and evolution of America’s museums.”
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