A New Look at Old Rooms

George Washington in Alexandria Ballroom
George Washington in Alexandria Ballroom

Amelia Peck, Curator of American Decorative Arts, Metropolitan Museum of Art gave an insightful talk Tuesday on the American Period Rooms at the Met from their inception through the present renovations.Peck said the renovation and reopening of the American period rooms at the Metropolitan Museum of Art not only allowed for a better flow through the galleries, but gave the museum an opportunity to refine the rooms on display. At the same time, other museums and historical societies were able to benefit their collections by adding paneling and rooms removed from the Met.

In the current installation of the rooms, five were removed entirely as no longer appropriate to the collection. Two were moved to new locations within the Museum more appropriate in the chronology. One wall of paneling from the Met is now part of the Pine Room at Bayou Bend in Houston. Others were relocated to New Hampshire and Maryland where they will again be on display in local museums.

The 1909 Hudson-Fulton Exhibition at the Met was the first time American decorative arts were shown at the museum. Then Met President Robert DeForrest, whose wife Emily collected many American items now at the Met, and Board member R.H. Halsey were instrumental in developing the American Galleries and eventually period rooms.

Bringing the period rooms into the 21st Century meant providing a wider chronological spread of rooms, and bringing visitors through the rooms in a chronological order. This meant adding a new glass elevator and signage, minimizing the abundance of rooms from around 1750 and improving the quality of rooms. New interactive computer screens were also added.

One interesting fact was that George Washington celebrated his last birthday in the Alexandria Ballroom. The room currently houses a large portrait of our first president by Gilbert Stuart.

There’s more to come. The Van Rensselaer room, perhaps one of the best at the Met, is not yet on display.

Peck also provided some insight into the philosophy of DeForrest and Halsey. DeForrest thought of the museum as a retreat from urbanity and daily life, as necessary as Central Park and green space. Halsey, however, thought of it as a way to introduce immigrants to American culture in hopes they will take ownership of it. That’s a powerful sentiment, incredibly relevant today.

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