Sunday, March 14, 2010

Morgan Library and Museum

2/20/10, Saturday
MUSEUM: The Morgan Library and Museum (
TIME: 2 hr 
COST: $12 each

An astute observer might have noticed that we’re a bit behind on our goal.  To reach our target of 180 museums in a year, we need to see 15 a month. We started this folly on 1/16/10, so by 2/20 (week 5), we should have seen about 17 museums, but we’d seen only 11.  At this rate we’re going to be spending next December seeing 74 museums in a month.  So today we were determined to make up for lost time and planned an ambitious schedule of 5 museums in a day.  To give you an idea of how ambitious this was, our record before this was 3, viewed in a very full day of 5.5 hours of museum time, which did not include travel between museums or meal breaks.  But this Saturday we’d chosen a group of smallish museums closely grouped in midtown and were planning to be in position by 9AM with our fit and ready friend “Peter,” and felt sure we could break the 3 museum barrier.  We were wrong.  Very, very wrong.

The first sign of things to come occurred when we picked up Peter, red-eyed, hungover and still partially drunk from the night before.  He’d gone out drinking with his brother, who was visiting from Tennessee and apparently starved for night life.  As we plied Peter with coffee and a slightly fussy aspirin from the bottom of my purse, he gave a blurry account of the night before.  I think his clearest memory was smoking a hookah while watching his bother feel up a waitress, until she said her name, which was the same as their mother.  Apparently that’s a big turn-off for guys.  We took pity on poor Peter and dropped him off at the train station, pointed in the correct way home, and then proceeded to the task at hand.  However the diversion put us in a different area of town, and running late.  It got worse from there: one of the museums was not a museum at all, one was closed for an event, and one was closed for no reason we could find.  By now, Paul and I have realized that museum staff can be as whimsical and flighty as the artists they exhibit, and the smaller the museum, the more whimsical it can be.  Rules are often non-sensical; signs and maps misleading, out of date, or just plain absent; and opening dates and times are flexible and change without notice. 

After hiking around midtown banging on closed doors and negotiating a few unstaffed phone trees, we stumbled upon a museum that had not even been on our list for the day, but we pounced on it like water in a desert.  I don’t want to disparage The Morgan Library and Museum though.  This stunning museum is one of the gems of New York.  It had not made the list for the day simply because we knew this museum would be worthy of several hours, and it did not disappoint.  The Morgan Library and Museum displays the private library and collections of John Pierpont Morgan (1837 -1913), a very wealthy financier and banker, famous for the mergers that created companies such as General Electric, United States Steel Corporation, and the original J. P. Morgan bank.  He was so wealthy he organized a bailout of the US economy during the panic of 1907.  (In his day, banks bailed out the government, not the other way around.)  Much of J. P. Morgan’s art collection was either sold during the great depression to Baron Thyssen-Bornemisza (and is now part of the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid), or was donated to the Metropolitan Museum upon his death.  Imagine a collection so vast that it forms the core of not one, but two of the world’s greatest museums.  There are still some great pieces, including “Old Master” works from Rembrandt, Raphael and Michelangelo.  But as stunning as the art is, it’s not what this museum is really about.  This museum houses one of the greatest collections of books in the world; its a shrine for bibliophiles. 

The museum itself is actually 4 buildings morphed into one: the original library building done in the style of a grand Italian Renaissance style palazzo, a lovely Italianate brownstone (the previous home of J. P. Morgan’s son), a modern annex building, and a large blocky atrium-like structure that joins everything together with a series of internal covered courtyards and gallery spaces.  The atrium structure was done in a simple modern style that contrasts jarringly with the classic designs of original library and brownstone, and has been heavily criticized in the press.  One paper described it as looking like someone “dropped a box of tissues, Gulliver-sized, between the buildings.”  I think I agree with the critics; looking at his original library buildings, Morgan obviously had a very clear idea of what he liked (elaborate Renaissance style architecture) and it really doesn’t mesh with something that looks like it was designed by Ikea.

The original library building is by far the most impressive part of the museum, and showcases wealth and extravagance to a gaudy extreme.  You enter into a dramatic rotunda (see picture above), with a marble mosaic floor, columns of lapis lazuli, and variegated marble wall panels.  Statues and busts peer at your from all corners, and above your head this lavish hall is topped with a gilded ceiling mural inspired by Raphael's ceiling paintings for the Vatican.  This was the original entrance to the library and study of J. P. Morgan and was clearly intended to shock and awe the visitor and establish that you are about to see the one of the wealthiest and influential men of the time.  On one side of the rotunda you enter J. P. Morgan’s study, once called “the most beautiful room in the world.”  His portrait glowers at you from above the massive fireplace, and pieces of his incredible collection lie scattered about the room like the world’s most expensive knickknacks: an Etruscan cista (bronze jar) from 300 B.C. engraved with figures from the Trojan War sits on a table near the fire; an ancient Chinese oxblood vase hides in a shadowed corner; paintings by Italian masters line the walls, and myriad marble carvings and bejeweled golden altars lie scattered on shelves like trinkets. 

As lovely as all this is, you have yet to see the largest and grandest room of all.  On the other side of the rotunda is the library itself (see picture at the top of the post).  The 30 ft walls are lined with a triple tier of inlaid walnut bookcases containing a collection so vast it’s difficult to describe, some examples are: the original manuscript of Dickens's “A Christmas Carol”; the scraps of paper on which Bob Dylan jotted down "Blowin' in the Wind"; Henry David Thoreau’s journals; a Percy Shelley notebook; originals of poems by Robert Burns; autographed and annotated scores from Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin, Mahler and Verdi; Mozart's Haffner Symphony in D Major; three Gutenberg bibles; and over 600 volumes of the world's finest collection of illuminated medieval and Renaissance manuscripts (see pictures).

As you walk along the lower tiers of the library and read the titles you can tell that the scope is amazing, but one of the problems that both Paul and I had with the museum is that the majority of the collection is inaccessible.  You only see what is put out for exhibit that day.  While we were there, they had exhibits on illuminated manuscripts and “The Hours of Catherine of Cleves” (considered the most beautiful illuminated book in the world), notebook pages and letters of the poet Dylan Thomas, and the writings of Jane Austin.  The Morgan Library has over a third of Jane Austin’s known letters and papers in the world, but these works haven’t been exhibited in over 25 years, making the point that you only see a sliver of the museum’s collection at any one time.  And even when you actually see a particular book you only see the one page that the curator left open.  We don’t blame the museum for this, of course you can’t have the public handling everything, the lack of access just seems to be an unfortunate consequence of exhibiting books versus other art forms.
Paul’s favorite part of the collection was not a book at all, but a collection of Mesopotamian seals, carved between 3500 - 300 BC.  These small carved cylinders were meant to be rolled over clay tablets (see image of imprint with seal above), marking them as official records.  The carvings on these cylinders were tiny yet unbelievably intricate and beautiful, and it made for an interesting glimpse of record keeping in ancient times.  

My favorite part of the museum was not a book either.  The librarian’s study was open for the first time, and with it a small exhibit on J. P. Morgan’s librarian, the elegant Belle da Costa Greene (1883 – 1950; see photo at right).  She was only in her 20’s when Morgan hired her to build his collection, but she rapidly became one of the most influential woman of her time, known for ferocious bargaining, quick wit and outspoken bohemian ways.  With the backing of Morgan’s bottomless wealth, Miss Greene wielded unmatched power in the art world and was known as the most astute appraiser of her day.  She moved easily in the most elite of society, but hid a secret all her life; she was actually a light skinned African American.  I find her amazing success in that fiercely racist and sexist era to be inspiring.

In summary, Paul and I both agree that this living memorial to J. P. Morgan’s incredible wealth and extravagance was definitely worth a visit.  Book lovers will be awe inspired.  But we strongly suggest you check the web page to see what’s on display before you come, as what is on exhibit will be the only things you see. 

Images in this post, from the top: photographs of the library, rotunda and rotunda ceiling of the Morgan Library and Museum, designed by Charles Follen McKim (1847–1909); gilt silver, enamel, and jeweled bookcover, probably Salzburg, ca. 760–90; details of St. Ambrose and The Mouth of Hell, from the Hours of Catherine of Cleves, Illuminated by the Master of Catherine of Cleves, The Netherlands ca. 1440; A Winged Hero Pursuing Two Ostriches, a cylinder seal and impression, Mesopotamia ca. 1250–1150 B.C.; and photograph of Belle de Costa Greene, image taken from the cover of the book “An Iluminated Life; Belle de Costa Greene’s Journey from Prejudice to Privilege” by Heidi Ardizzone.



  2. Lynn and I preferred the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid to the Prado, though at the time we did not know its connection with the J.P. Morgan collection. The role played by Belle da Costa Greene is amazing from many angles; someone should write a play about her. - Mike

  3. Neat! Now I know what I want to come see when I visit NY. I'm a big fan of books and libraries in general and it would be great fun to see one as lavish and impressive as the Morgan Library.
    Also, I really like Mesopotamian seals. I think it would be very cool if we still used them for signing documents in some way. Just think if everyone had a little bit or artwork on a string around their neck that they would roll over papers and whatnot creating their personal art imprint!


  5. Check out our favorite museums in NYC!