One hundred forty years ago today, on April 13, 1870, the Legislature of the State of New York granted an act of incorporation that formally established The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The new institution was charged with "encouraging and developing the study of the fine arts, and the application of the arts to manufacture and practical life, of advancing general knowledge of kindred subjects, and, to that end, furnishing popular instruction and recreation." (Charter of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, State of New York, Laws of 1870, Chapter 197, passed April 13, 1870 and amended L. 1898, ch. 34; L. 1908, ch. 219.)
At the time of its creation, the Met had no building, no art collection, and no professional staff. Its newly organized Board of Trustees included such prominent civic leaders, businessmen, and artists as the lawyers Joseph H. Choate and Andrew Haswell Green, the railroad executive John Taylor Johnston, the painter John Frederick Kensett, and the architect Richard Morris Hunt. During the Museum's first decade the Trustees successfully raised operating funds, formed the nucleus of a collection, and began hosting exhibitions in rented spaces, first at 681 Fifth Avenue and later on West 14th Street. In 1880, the Museum opened its first building at what is now 1000 Fifth Avenue.
Manuscript and printed copies of the New York State charter are among the most important holdings of the Museum Archives, which was also established in 1870. At that time, a Trustee was officially appointed Secretary and charged with collecting and organizing Museum records. Today, my three colleagues and I continue to fulfill this mission, and our role has expanded to include providing scholarly access to the records and promoting an informed understanding of the Museum’s history. In addition to the Museum's original charter, other highlights of our collection include Office of the Secretary Records, The Havemeyer Family Papers relating to Art Collecting (PDF), John Taylor Johnston Collection (PDF), and Richard F. Bach Records (PDF). Another exciting and popular resource is our newly available Museum Exhibitions 1870–2010 (PDF)—a chronological list of all special exhibitions held at The Metropolitan Museum of Art from its founding in 1870 to the present.
James Moske is managing archivist in the Museum Archives.