The New American Wing - Behind the Scenes with the Director

Director Thomas Campbell and Morrison Heckscher tour The New American Wing, which opened May 19, 2009, following two years of major renovation and reinstallation. In the dramatic, light-filled Charles Engelhard Court with views onto Central Park, they stop to admire several iconic and monumental American sculptures, including works by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Daniel Chester French, Frederick William MacMonnies, and Karl Bitter, and discuss a newly created balcony that will house the spectacular collection of American art pottery recently promised to the Museum by Robert A. Ellison Jr. Their preview includes an overview of the Met's unparalleled collection of decorative arts, including a newly re-arranged series of period rooms that will transport visitors from colonial New England to a Frank Lloyd Wright living room from early twentieth-century Minnesota.

Thomas P. Campbell, Director, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Morrison Heckscher, Lawrence A. Fleischman Chairman of The American Wing.

Learn more about plans for the finished New American Wing, to open January 16, 2012:

Thomas Campbell: I'm Tom Campbell, Director of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and I'm in the Charles Engelhard Courtyard of the American Wing, which has been under construction for the last two years, with Morrison Heckscher, the Chairman of the American Wing.

Morrie, this space has transformed in the last two years. It used to have a lot of greenery and not that many sculptures. But now, we are confronted by this wide open space, populated with a whole assembly of sculptures, marbles, and bronzes. Can you tell me a little bit about the changes that have gone on?

Morrison Heckscher: We have transformed one of New York City's great public spaces into a glorious sculpture court. We have given a space I always adored before, a new lightness, a vibrance, an openness, an excitement that we find absolutely exhilarating. And in it, we are highlighting and focusing upon our extraordinary collection of American sculpture and American decorative arts.

Thomas Campbell: The room still centers on Saint-Gaudens' Diana. Can you tell me a little bit about the origin of the sculpture?

Morrison Heckscher: I like to think of it, Tom, as the greatest weathervane in American sculpture, the original of this by our greatest sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens. And it was designed originally to surmount the tower of Madison Square Garden. This is a half-scale replica acquired by the museum in the 1920s.

Thomas Campbell: Now directing our visitors towards the new glass elevator that will be taking them up to the period rooms.

Morrison Heckscher: That is correct. She fits perfectly here—the bow and arrow pointing toward the rest of the American Wing.

We've added many other pieces of sculpture to the collection, and perhaps the most interesting one, to our right, is the first monumental large-scale marble by the same sculptor. The figure is Saint-Gaudens' version of Hiawatha, the Indian chief made famous by a very popular poem by Longfellow, of 1855.

Thomas Campbell: You really see the difference in the suggestion of the different textures, and the scale, and the rock.

Morrison Heckscher: Absolutely. Saint-Gaudens used this sculpture as an opportunity to prove to people his mastery of sculptural form, and of the different types of surface materials and design. This was his public statement that he was going to be a great sculptor.

Thomas Campbell: This is a recent acquisition. I see two large sculptures over here against the end wall that I don't remember being there before. Are they also new acquisitions?

Morrison Heckscher: Well, Tom, it's very interesting that you don't recognize them, because though we've had them for generations, they've been buried up on the balconies behind exhibition cases.

Thomas Campbell: Tell me about this one.

Morrison Heckscher: This monumental white marble memorial is one of the masterworks of Daniel Chester French, a prolific and important American sculptor—and trustee of this Museum for nearly thirty years, and the man who is responsible for our acquiring so much American sculpture.

Thomas Campbell: Who is this chap who’s being stopped in mid-action?

Morrison Heckscher: This young man here—obviously a young sculptor—he died in his late thirties. His name was Milmore. And the Angel of Death is stopping his professional life too young. French was commissioned to design the original of this in bronze for the family tomb.

Thomas Campbell: His wings look fabulous, the way they curve around the figure of Death.

Morrison Heckscher: Now, finally, it's front and center in our court for people to see.

Thomas Campbell: Very striking. Now, this is a rather melancholic subject, but I see a very lively figure over here. Can we...?

Morrison Heckscher: This is a very different style over here. It's a bronze. The sculptor is Frederick MacMonnies. I would suspect that this is his most infamous piece of sculpture.

Thomas Campbell: Why infamous? This is certainly an exuberant naked figure.

Morrison Heckscher: The story behind this is that the original client was the famous architect Charles Follen McKim, and MacMonnies produced this for him. McKim wanted it to be installed in the Boston Public Library. Straight-laced Boston rejected it.

Thomas Campbell: Not quite appropriate for the books.

Morrison Heckscher: McKim turned around and gave it to the Metropolitan Museum.

Thomas Campbell: And we welcomed it with open arms?

Morrison Heckscher: We welcomed it with open arms, that is correct. And we think it a wonderful, wonderful way to welcome people to the history of American art.

Thomas Campbell: Turning from this exuberant figure, Morrie, I see a very dramatic pulpit, which has been moved, I think, from its previous location.

Morrison Heckscher: This is actually a piece of church fitting, if you will—it's a fragment from a church in Manhattan. It is one of the masterworks of the sculptor Karl Bitter. Bitter is of particular interest to us at the Met because he was the sculptor of choice for Richard Morris Hunt, who was the architect of the front of the Museum. Four of Bitter's greater than life-size figures are carved on the façade of the Met and can be seen from Fifth Avenue. So, he is one of our own. We're delighted to have this fragment saved from a church that was demolished in the 1970s.

Thomas Campbell: I wonder what the acoustics are like. Will you be giving sermons here in the future?

Morrison Heckscher: I would love to, Tom, but I'll let you have first choice. But here, on the right, is a cardboard mock-up of the sounding board, will be carved out of white oak, and attached to the column, will allow a preacher to stand in that pulpit and without a microphone, speak clearly to an audience of hundreds in a room this big.

Thomas Campbell: We'll have to try it when the wing opens.

Morrison Heckscher: You're welcome to.

Thomas Campbell: Now what about these? These are—these used to be somewhere else. What are they?

Morrison Heckscher: These are monumental French-style lamp standards that, originally, were located at the top of the steps of the Museum, so they link to Karl Bitter, the sculptor. And here, Richard Morris Hunt, the architect designing these light fixtures, which we've reassembled here so that they lead you to the north side of the Engelhard Court, where one sees the familiar, classical marble façade by Martin Thompson, for the Branch Bank of the United States.

Thomas Campbell: I see this is also a very good point from which we can see the new gallery that you've installed as part of this refurbishment.


Morrison Heckscher: We've been able to add a whole new balcony area for the display of American art pottery and other decorative arts, and this is now going to be the home for a famous private collection, that of Robert Ellison, which is now a promised gift to the Museum.

Thomas Campbell: And the Ellison Collection is a collection of American ceramics.

Morrison Heckscher: Ceramic from the 1850s to the 1950s.

Thomas Campbell: Fabulous, and so then punching through into the new…

Morrison Heckscher: And that links into the Henry R. Luce study collections. And on the upper level, we have another forty cases, with a combination of silver, and glass, and ceramics, arranged chronologically. And that will ultimately link to the picture galleries, which will be opening in 2011.

Thomas Campbell: When the public come here later this May for the reopening of the period rooms, and they access through the new elevator over here in the corner, what will they be seeing as part of this redevelopment?

Morrison Heckscher: Well, the top floor of the building behind the bank façade, that is where we have the beginning of a chronological architectural tour of American domestic architecture, from seventeenth-century Puritan Massachusetts, to early twentieth-century Minnesota with Frank Lloyd Wright. And that entire sequence, now in chronological order, will be opening in May.

Thomas Campbell: Fabulous, can't wait to see it. Thank you very much, Morrie.

Morrison Heckscher: Thank you. Great.

Produced and Directed by Chris Noey

Editor: Kate Farrell | Cameras: Wayne de la Roche, Jessica Glass | Production Assistants: Angela Kim, Robin Schwalb

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