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A Brief History of the Museum

The Metropolitan Museum of Art was founded in 1870 by a group of American citizens – businessmen and financiers as well as leading arists and thinkers of the day – who wanted to create a museum to bring art and art education to the American people.

The Metropolitan's paintings collection also began in 1870, when three private European collections, 174 paintings in all, came to the Museum. A variety of excellent Dutch and Flemish paintings, including works by such artists as Hals and Van Dyck, was supplemented with works by such great European artists as Poussin, Tiepolo, and Guardi.

The collections continued to grow for the rest of the 19th century – upon the death of John Kensett, for example, 38 of his canvases came to the Museum. But it is the 20th century that has seen the Museum's rise to the position of one of the world's great art centers. Some highlights: a work by Renoir entered the Museum as early as 1907 (today the Museum has become one of the world's great repositories of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art)...in 1910 the Metropolitan was the first public institution to accept works of art by Matisse...by 1979 the Museum owned five of the fewer than 40 known Vermeers...the Department of Greek and Roman Art now oversees thousands of objects, including one of the finest collections in glass and silver in the world...The American Wing holds the most comprehensive collection of American art, sculpture, and decorative arts in the world...the Egyptian art collection is the finest outside Cairo...the Islamic art collection is without peer...and so on, through many of the 17 curatorial departments.

In 1880, the Metropolitan Museum moved to its current site in Central Park. The original Gothic-Revival-style building has been greatly expanded in size since then, and the various additions (built as early as 1888) now completely surround the original structure. The present facade and entrance structure along Fifth Avenue were completed in 1926.

A comprehensive architectural plan for the Museum approved in 1971 was completed in 1991. The architects for the project were Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates, and the overall aim was to make the Museum's collections more accessible to the public, more useful to the scholars and, in general, more interesting and informative to all visitors.

Among the additions to the Museum as part of the master plan are: the Robert Lehman Wing (1975), which houses an extraordinary collection of Old Masters, as well as Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art; the installation in The Sackler Wing of the Temple of Dendur (1978), an Egyptian monument (ca. 15 B.C.) that was given to the United States by Egypt; The American Wing (1980), whose magnificent collection also includes 24 period rooms offering an unparalleled view of American art history and domestic life; The Michael C. Rockefeller Wing (1982) for the display of the arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas; the Lila Acheson Wallace Wing (1987), which houses modern art; and the Henry R. Kravis Wing, devoted to European sculpture and decorative arts from the Renaissance to the beginning of the 20th century.

With the building now complete, the Metropolitan Museum continues to refine and reorganize the collections in its existing spaces. In June 1998, the Arts of Korea gallery opened to the public, completing a major suite of galleries – a "museum within the Museum" – devoted to the arts of Asia. In October 1999 the renovated Ancient Near Eastern Galleries reopened. And a complete renovation and reinstallation of the Greek and Roman Galleries is underway: the first phase, The Robert and Renée Belfer Court for early Greek art, opened in June 1996; the New Greek Galleries premiered in April 1999; and in April 2000 the Cypriot Galleries will open to the public.

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September 1999

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