Curators Point the Way to Hidden Treasures
Curators Point the Way to Hidden Treasures
By SETH KUGEL - New York Times, 4/27/2008
SO you know about the water tower at MoMA, the monkey god at the Met, and the outsized millipede at the natural history museum? What? No? What kind of a museumgoer are you, anyway?
A typical one, it turns out. New York City’s most iconic museums have a tendency to draw you to the same (great) attractions every time — Picassos and Egyptian temples and dinosaurs, just to name a few.
So Weekend in New York presented the following question to staff members of three big Manhattan museums: What is the most hidden treasure in the museum, the ones that even repeat visitors may never have seen?
Peter Reed, the senior deputy director for curatorial affairs at the Museum of Modern Art, fretted a bit. “Where are the hidden gems in MoMA?” he said. “My first reaction: they’re in storage. In other words, what’s on view is very much on view.”
He mentioned the film programs, noting that most out-of-town visitors don’t realize their admission also gets them into two movies in the museum (just present your admission ticket at the film desk). But in the end the title went to “Water Tower,” a 1998 sculpture by the British artist Rachel Whiteread, inspired by New York City’s old-fashioned rooftop wooden water towers. If you know where to look, you can spot it as soon as you enter the sculpture garden, or from the Architecture and Design gallery on the third floor.
“I think about the visitor coming through this door and looking up,” said Mr. Reed, standing at the entrance to the sculpture garden. “It might catch their eye: ‘What is that familiar but unfamiliar object?’ The water towers of New York are proverbial, they’re vernacular, they’re on every building, it seems. Casting it in this translucent resin, it’s as if the wooden parts of the water tower have fallen away and what you have is an almost icelike object. For me it truly became a magical piece when I saw the sun coming through it; it really glows.”
The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s submission was not a single hidden work, but a somewhat hidden entire collection, the South Asian rooms of the Irving Galleries for the Arts of South and Southeast Asia. “It is the premier collection in the United States,” said its new curator, John Guy, “unrivaled both in quality and scope. You can essentially go on a journey through early India.”
If you can find it. The entrance is Door No. 2 in the gallery just past the Balcony Cafe, but unless you pay attention, you’ll notice only Door No. 1, and end up in Arts of Ancient China. Here’s the trick: after you walk past the cafe entrance, look for the mammoth armless statue from the Northern Qi dynasty; the entrance is right behind. (If you’re simply too uncultured to recognize Northern Qi style, no need for concern; there are no other mammoth armless statues to confuse it with.)
The rooms, 13 of them, go roughly in chronological sequence, starting in the Indus Valley in Pakistan in the early centuries A.D.; you see the Greco-Roman influence in what Mr. Guy only half-jokingly calls “Buddhas wearing togas.” The room dedicated to Gandhara style has “some of the first Buddhist art in the Buddhist world, and defined the classical Buddha image,” which he described as “a very stylized figure, with wet draping.” A bit of evidence is laid out for you: the Buddha figure in mottled red sandstone is exhibited near a doorway into the neighboring East Asian collections, and a Chinese Buddha, strikingly similar, peeks out.
Hinduism soon displays its influence; the Kashmiri room has a stunning fifth-century bronze mask of Vishnu; another room is dedicated to a granite four-armed Vishnu with a conical crown intended to represent his hair, “by far the largest stone structure from India in any Western collection.” said Mr. Guy. “It gives a real sense of the monumental, and the scale of temple building in India.”
But perhaps the highlights are in the next room, dedicated to the processional bronze images of south India and including the strong but strikingly elegant Hanuman, known commonly as the monkey god.
Michael Novacek, the provost of science at the American Museum of Natural History, just may have been the type of kid who used to play with bugs in the dirt. His choice was not so much a hidden gem as a hidden dirt pile: the forest floor diorama, which magnifies the layers of dirt and leaves and bugs on a forest floor by about 24 times to display the complex processes that take place down there, most notably decomposition.
Most prominent in this unprominent diorama — poorly lighted and set in the short hallway between the Hall of Biodiversity and the main-section North American Forests exhibition (of which it is a part) — is a humongous millipede that could be put to great use in practical jokes. There are also all kinds of other squirm-inducing creatures, like the mega-daddy longlegs (check out its eyes), an acorn weevil larva and a pseudoscorpion.
“It says so much in one image about how amazing and mysterious a lot of life is and how little we understand it, and how organisms work together,” said Dr. Novacek. “It not only shows the amazing diversity of life, but also the interconnectedness, the fact that all these different species depend on one another to keep the ecosystem chugging along. I think when people stop and look at it, they say, ‘Wow, that’s amazing!’”
In fact, on one recent afternoon, three people who did stop and look said the following:
“Mom, it’s a millipede!”
“That’s kind of neat!”
All, in their own ways, synonymous with “Wow, that’s amazing!”
THE OPPOSITE OF BLOCKBUSTER
Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, (212) 708-9400. “Water Tower,” by Rachel Whiteread, can be viewed from the entrance to the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden, from the fourth-floor Werner and Elaine Dannheisser Gallery, or from the Architecture and Design galleries on the third floor of the garden lobby. Admission $20.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, at 82nd Street; (212) 535-7710; www.metmuseum.org. The Florence and Herbert Irving Galleries for the Arts is on the second floor, to the right above the Great Hall as you enter the museum, just beyond the Balcony Cafe. Suggested admission $20.
American Museum of Natural History, 79th Street and Central Park West, (212) 769-5100. The forest floor diorama is on the first floor (one floor below the main entrance) between the Hall of Biodiversity and North American Forests. Suggested admission $15.