What's On View
Works in the collection are housed in the Michael C. Rockefeller Wing, a 40,000-square-foot space on the south side of the Museum. Galleries within the wing are organized geographically.
Arts of Africa
The Museum's collection of African art covers a large geographical area, from the western Sudan south and east through central and southern Africa. Works on view range from an Ethiopian gospel and processional crosses from the fifteenth and sixteenth century to refined Afro-Portuguese ivories from the same period and formally powerful Fang reliquary figures that appealed to early twentieth-century artists such as Jacob Epstein and André Derain. The galleries include figurative and architectural sculpture, masks, seats of leadership, staffs of office, ceremonial vessels, and personal ornaments. Many of these works were originally created to reinforce the rank and prestige of regional leaders, others to indicate the collective status of initiates invested with specific social responsibilities, still others to pay homage to ancestral forces. While wood is the primary medium, works made of stone, terracotta, gold, silver, and ivory are also on display, as are textiles and beadwork. An important assemblage of royal art from the Court of Benin in Nigeria, dating from the sixteenth through the nineteenth century, consists of brass figures and architectural plaques, carved ivory altar tusks, musical instruments, boxes, staffs, and courtly and personal ornaments, among other works.
Arts of Oceania
Encompassing the arts and cultures of the Pacific Islands, Oceania covers more than a third of the Earth's surface and includes the three main regions of the Pacific Islands proper—Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia—together with Australia and Island Southeast Asia. This vast region is home to roughly 1,800 different cultures and an immense diversity of artistic traditions. While the earliest examples of Oceanic art—the rock paintings of the Australian Aboriginals—are thought to be more than forty thousand years old, the majority of surviving works date from the eighteenth through the twenty-first century. The Metropolitan's collection is particularly strong in sculpture from the island of New Guinea, both from the Sepik River region in the northeast and from the Asmat people in the southwest. The works on view range from elegant, relatively naturalistic figures from Polynesia and Island Southeast Asia; to angular, minimalist sculpture and decorative arts from Micronesia; to fantastic, otherworldly images of Melanesian ancestors and spirits; and the graceful figures and vibrant geometric compositions of Australian Aboriginal art.
Arts of the Americas
The Museum's holdings of Precolumbian art represent the portion of North and South America that reaches from Mexico south through Peru, covering a 3,500-year period that begins at about 3000 B.C.E. and ends with the arrival of the Spanish in the early sixteenth century C.E. Among the objects on view from Mexico are Olmec ceramic vessels and figures from the first millennium B.C.E., appealing sculptural ceramics from West Mexico from the end of the first millennium, and Aztec stone sculpture dating to the fifteenth century. Maya works include an elegant, imposing seated figure in wood, a rare survivor of the almost tropical environment, and fluidly carved relief sculptures of the eighth century. From the Caribbean, works by the Taino peoples display distinctive imagery adorning pieces that range from small shell objects to large sculptures in wood. Objects and textiles of many eras represent ancient South America: ceramic vessels of Chavin times in the first millennium B.C.E.; textiles and garments of several millennia and places, which display amazing colors and ingenious patterning; and many types of works of gold or copper—sometimes both—created for many different purposes. The South American Gallery also houses the Jan Mitchell Treasury in which all the goldworking regions of the Americas are represented.
A gallery devoted to Native North American art displays approximately ninety works made by numerous American peoples. Ranging from the beautifully shaped stone tools known as bannerstones of several millennia B.C.E. to a mid-1970s tobacco bag, the objects illustrate a wide variety of cultural backgrounds, artistic styles, and functional purposes, all qualities inherent in the art of the peoples of the large North American continent. Works include wood sculpture from the Northwest Coast of North America, ivory carvings from the Arctic, wearing blankets from the Southwest, and objects of hide from the Great Plains.
History of the Department
A gift of Peruvian antiquities made in 1882 was the first acquisition the Metropolitan made in the areas now covered by the Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, but the department was not established until 1969 and the Promised Gift of Nelson A. Rockefeller. The Rockefeller gift offer included more than three thousand works of art, a specialized library (the Robert Goldwater Library), and the Visual Resource Archive, which documents, in various formats, the art and culture of the regions represented by the department. In 1982, the Michael C. Rockefeller Wing, newly built to display the collections, opened to the public. The wing is named for Nelson Rockefeller's son Michael, the collector of many of the Asmat objects from Papua Province (western New Guinea), Indonesia, now on display in the Museum. Since the opening of the wing, the department has mounted temporary, focused exhibitions on topics relevant to the collections.