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Renovating The Cloisters: Maintaining the Vision

Peter Barnet, Michel David-Weill Curator in Charge, Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters

Posted: Friday, June 28, 2013

The Cloisters, Early Gothic Hall

The Cloisters, Early Gothic Hall

«"Creating the Cloisters," the spring issue of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin written by curator Timothy B. Husband, is an engaging and nuanced narrative of the early history of The Cloisters. As a complement to that narrative, I'd like to review the more recent gallery renovations and reinstallations that have been undertaken, all guided by the principle of maintaining the integrity of the original architectural vision of The Cloisters.»

In 1988, the fiftieth-anniversary year of the opening of The Cloisters, the Treasury was expanded and renovated. Made possible by the generosity of Michel David-Weill, this project permitted many small-scale, precious works that had been added to the collection with funds from the Rockefeller endowment to be accommodated properly without overcrowding the galleries on the main floor.

Treasury

It was also at the half-century point that it became clear that The Cloisters building required significant attention, and the Museum has devoted time and funds to upgrading galleries, as well as roofs, windows, and storerooms. Of the many generous donors who deserve thanks for contributions to these building projects, the City of New York and The Alice Tully Foundation are preeminent. In 1999 the galleries housing the Hunt of the Unicorn and Nine Heroes tapestries were reroofed and refurbished, and the track lighting was eliminated and the original louvered lighting system was restored, providing appropriately even lighting for the wall hangings.

Left: Unicorn Tapestries Room; right: Nine Heroes Tapestries Room

The Sherman Fairchild Foundation provided funds in 2002 for the creation of a state-of-the-art conservation laboratory at The Cloisters that has greatly enhanced care and preservation of the collection.

The Cloisters Sherman Fairchild Conservation Lab

In the Saint-Guilhem Cloister the original skylight—which had become leaky—was replaced in 2003, allowing much improved lighting for the fine medieval carvings.

Saint-Guilhem Cloister

In all the gallery renovations at The Cloisters, great care has been taken to install unobtrusive lighting systems and to restore the original stucco wall colors, which were intended to harmonize with the stonework. (Over the years, many of the walls at The Cloisters had been painted white, which had the unfortunate effect of visually flattening the sculptures.) Work on the Saint-Guilhem Cloister was followed in 2004 by the renovation and reinstallation of the Boppard Gallery, where a late medieval window facing the Cuxa Cloister had been blocked long ago to accommodate a large tapestry.

Stained-glass panels (2010.22.1 and 2010.22.2) installed in the restored window in the Boppard Room

The 2004 renovation uncovered the window, permitting views between the two spaces and providing an ideal location for some of the Museum's growing collection of stained-glass panels.

Boppard Room, south view (left) and north view (right)

Most of the main-floor galleries at The Cloisters have now been thoroughly renovated. Notable among them is the Early Gothic Hall, with its dramatic view of the Hudson River and the New Jersey Palisades beyond. In addition to new lighting and refurbishing, protective glazing on the hall's thirteenth-century windows has permitted many marvelous stained-glass panels of that century to be installed in exterior windows as intended.

Early Gothic Hall

Since 2006 a new HVAC system, funded mostly by New York City, has been providing a stable climate in the galleries, something never before achieved at The Cloisters. The remarkably successful system was installed with little visible alteration of the building. With the support of a grant from the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, in 2007 the Museum renovated and reinstalled the Merode Room, which houses the famous Annunciation Triptych, in keeping with the central concept of private devotion in the late middle ages.

Merode Room

The Late Gothic Hall was reinstalled in 2009 following conservation of the four large fifteenth-century windows from Sens. This project enabled the great tapestry from Burgos Cathedral, Christ is Born as Man's Redeemer, to be installed following its conservation. (To learn about the conservation of this masterpiece, watch the short video The Burgos Tapestry: A Study in Conservation.)

Late Gothic Hall

Future projects envisioned for the years following the seventy-fifth anniversary include additional protective glazing campaigns, renovation and reinstallation of the Glass Gallery on the lower level, and landscaping and garden improvements. Naturally, interpretation of the collection, education, and acquisitions will always remain high priorities as The Cloisters looks toward its centennial.

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About the Author

Peter Barnet is the Michel David-Weill Curator in Charge of the Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters.

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