In 2014, after 20 years living, working, and raising a family in the United States, I proudly became an American citizen. As director and CEO of The Met, I was asked if I would host a swearing-in ceremony at the Museum. I gladly accepted and realized that there was only one appropriate site: The Charles Engelhard Court, the large atrium that is part of our American Wing. Standing there among 50 new Americans originating from 30 countries around the globe, I found myself moved to tears, awestruck by the ideals and generosity of this nation.
Of course, as a British citizen I would not have been affected by President Trump's recent executive order limiting immigration from a range of mostly Muslim countries. But it still feels very personal. Not just because I am an immigrant, but because of how the order would affect The Met and our sister institutions around the country.
Let me start by saying that art is not a "soft subject," and museums staffed by experts are not a luxury. On the contrary. As the world becomes at once smaller and increasingly complex, it is vital for the public to have a credible, rational, and thoughtful context to understand where we are and how we got here. For thousands of years, through their insights, perspectives, and provocations, artists and scholars have provided this context. As an encyclopedic museum covering 6,000 years of global cultural history, The Met simultaneously provides a historic and a contemporary perspective on mutual understanding. It is a calm, safe environment in which thoughtful voices can be heard: a counterbalance to the polarized cacophony of elected leaders and sensation-seeking news outlets.
The Met was established shortly after the American Civil War, at a time when New York was the center of a massive wave of immigration and its many attendant challenges. The citizens who founded The Met envisioned it first and foremost as an educational entity, along the lines of the great European museums, that would help teach these merging populations about their origins and about one another.
Our mandate as an educational institution is more important today than ever before. To give an example, we reopened our galleries of Islamic art in 2011, almost exactly 10 years after the 9/11 attacks thrust the Muslim world into the American consciousness with a distorting aura of violence and extremism. These galleries provide a nuanced and rich counterpoint to the oversimplification of Islam prevalent in today's media and political discourse. It is important to note that the Islamic galleries remain some of our highest-attended permanent exhibitions, demonstrating a hunger from our visitors for the beauty, information, and perspective they provide.
While we are a museum of art, at our core we represent the best of human thought and ideas, powered by some of the leading experts in the world. To this end, scholarly exchange and international collaboration are fundamental to how we work and what we value at The Met. We stand in steadfast opposition to any barriers, including these recent executive actions, that would unnecessarily inhibit those freedoms. We are especially concerned how such a ban might affect our own staff and international fellows.
Over the years The Met has sponsored numerous colleagues from nations currently under the proposed ban, from an Iranian scholar assisting with research on artifacts from Nishapur, an Iranian city located along the Silk Road, and excavated by The Met in the mid-20th century, to museum directors from Libya, who met with senior staff, conservators, and curators. Although future exchanges with Libya were discussed, an invitation would not be possible under the proposed ban. We also have three Iraqi fellows in our Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art. One is now unable to leave the country to see his family, fearing he would not be allowed to return, and the others will no longer be able to participate given the present uncertainty. And while there are other immediate consequences, including proposed archaeological excavations in Iraq and Iran that would be out of the question, the most devastating long-term effect would be the irreparable harm being done to our national, professional, and scholarly reputation. Barring entry to scholars and artists with diverse perspectives does not make us safer, it makes us collectively poorer. The Met is far from alone in facing these challenges.
Since arriving in America 22 years ago, I have grown ever more respectful of the uniqueness of this country and the values that generations of activist citizens, including the founders, labored to develop and sustain. We look back at them with gratitude for the battles they fought, literally and metaphorically. As I mingle with the crowds streaming into The Met today, I find myself thinking hard about how we want our children and grandchildren to look back at us. The liberties and values we take for granted were hard won, and we must dedicate ourselves to sustaining them now and into the future.