Enlarging narratives

May 18, 2020

Curator Paola Nicolin dialogues with Max Hollein, Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York to discuss museums and how to build communities through art.

Max Hollein and Paola Nicolin dialogue

The encyclopedic museum

As curator Paola Nicolin points out at the beginning of the conversation, the Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York belongs to the so-called encyclopedic museums, and it is in fact "the most encyclopedic museum in the world." Max Hollein as its director has the duty to understand which is the role of encyclopedic museums today: "I see an encyclopedic museum as a museum that it is about the world and hence it is more important now than ever. In a time of crisis, when every country is closing its borders, you see that it is more relevant than ever to have institutions that go beyond borders."

Max Hollein underlines that the idea of encyclopedic museums came from the Enlightenment period, undergone a lot of changes since since the time it was firstly conceived: "The initial idea was to bring all the cultures of the world in one place, and the museum did tell a linear story: it usually starts in old Mesopotamia, then to Greece, then to Rome…" but, as he continues, "Today we are aware that this one-linear-narrative idea is wrong and that there are in fact multiple interconnected narratives that need to be exhibit."

Georgia O’Keeffe, From the Faraway Nearby, 1937, oil painting on canvas. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Making the MET

The MET was supposed to celebrate this year the 150 years anniversary of its foundation with a mayor celebratory exhibition entitled Making the MET, which is now anticipated by a series of digital contents.

"Making the MET on one hand shows the development of the MET as an encyclopedic institution, but it is also in a certain way an exhibition about the history of City of New York of the last 150 years."


At the time of its founding, 150 years ago, the MET was nothing beside the ambition of a small group of people to build an encyclopedic museum in New York City, as Hollein explains: "This 150 years, as the exhibition explore, are the assembly of this ambition. And the MET has always collected the art of its time."


"Making The Met, 1870–2020 traces the institution’s history through ten transformative episodes when the Museum’s course changed, evolving in tandem with world events and broader shifts in taste and society.”

In this time of emergency museums are facing the urgency of ‘delivering’ culture and maintaining a relationship with their visitors by producing digital content, frequently with successful feedback, but as Paola Nicolin underlines “How could a follower become a visitor?”

"We have an enormous amount of information that people can use, just to give an idea we have 1000 publications for free online. On the one hand, it is sure that digital has helped us to fulfil our mission which is to provide education, content, engagement", Max Hollein answers, "Though I think that a physical visit is just a part of how you can engage with an institution so basically there is a moment when you can prepare a visit,  and afterward a moment when you can reflect.  The digital experience and the physical one are more and more merged, the idea of experiencing art can be extended after through the digital one."

Contemporary art at MET

"In New York there are a lot of great institutions that exhibit and deal with contemporary art so the question asked is always; What is modern contemporary art at MET? and what MET is trying to do is put contemporary art in the context of art history of a broader cultural understanding of what contemporary art is. We expand how we are engaging contemporary artist with the MET, in very public area of the museum, for example inviting Wangechi Mutu to exhibit her sculpture on the façade of the MET. I think you see that contemporary art at the MET can be playful."

"These days, visitors to The Met Fifth Avenue are encountering a striking new welcome committee: four massive bronze figures, in residence through January 12 in niches that punctuate the Museum’s facade. The work of Kenyan-born, Brooklyn-based artist Wangechi Mutu, this installation inaugurates an exciting new program of public art—and signals a new direction in the Museum’s outlook under Director Max Hollein."


Cover image: Wangechi Mutu, The Seated IV, 2019, one of the four Mutu sculptures at the Met. Credit Bruce Schwarz, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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