Forty years ago this weekend, on November 14, 1970, the exhibition Masterpieces of Fifty Centuries opened at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. This was the last in a series of five major exhibitions organized over the course of eighteen months (October 1969–February 1971) in celebration of the Museum's centennial. (For more about the founding of the Museum, see "Today in Met History: April 13.") The four previous exhibitions in the series were New York Painting and Sculpture: 1940–1970 (October 18, 1969–February 1, 1970); The Year 1200 (February 12–May 10, 1970); Nineteenth-Century America (April 16–September 7, 1970); and Before Cortés: Sculpture of Middle America (September 30, 1970–January 3, 1971). The Museum also hosted several special events throughout the period of centennial celebrations.
Masterpieces of Fifty Centuries brought together four hundred of the Museum's finest acquisitions, showing them alongside highly important loans from a total of thirteen American museums and private collections. Also included were objects drawn from the collection of the Museum of Primitive Art and from what is now known as The Robert Lehman Collection, each of which had been generously offered to the Metropolitan in 1969.
The exhibition catalogue featured an essay by the noted art historian Kenneth Clark. A draft of Clark's essay and his correspondence with Curator-in-Chief Theodore Rousseau are among the highlights of the Museum Archives' holdings related to this landmark exhibition.
Organized by Rousseau, with the input of his peers from each of the Museum's seventeen curatorial departments, the exhibition was conceived both as an homage to the patrons and supporters who had created and enriched the Museum during its first one hundred years and as a harbinger of a future in which many special exhibitions would be assembled from the Museum's own collections. Although the objects were installed chronologically, the exhibition was not meant to be a lesson in art history, but rather to "emphasize not only the beauty of each object, but also the different spirits in which man has created art over the millennia," according to the press release, which also quoted Rousseau directly:
The last exhibition of the Metropolitan Museum's centennial sets the theme for its activities in its second hundred years. Masterpieces of Fifty Centuries presents works of art of the finest quality in chronological order from the earliest times to the present. This has never been done before by any museum; indeed, only the Metropolitan could assemble such an exhibition from its own collections because it is unique in sheltering under one roof the art of practically every significant culture known to man. The Museum's first century has been devoted to gathering great works of art. This period is now ending. The time has come to concentrate on using the collections, to make them significant in the fullest sense, for the enjoyment and instruction of every visitor.
Indeed, the Museum's holdings are so vast that they provide enough material for dozens of special exhibitions each year.
Barbara File is archivist in the Museum Archives.