A New York minute

Inspiration and tranquility at the Met


Whenever I’m in New York I make a point of being one of the six million yearly visitors that amble through the 250-odd galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, 185,800 square metres of prime real estate on Fifth Avenue’s Museum Mile. Inside its cavernous halls are two million-plus paintings, scrolls, sculptures and assorted bits of pottery representing 3,000 years of world culture.

New York’s premier museum is an overpowering example of curatorial aspiration and cultural imperialism, an expression of Manifest Destiny that gathers up the spoils of victory, labels and then exhibits them for the world to see, at the (suggested) admission price of $25. The Met is a perfect reflection of the bullishly confident city that surrounds it, certain in the knowledge that it has the power to impress and overawe. And it does.

As a result, the Met is too big and too popular to be the kind of quiet, contemplative space a smaller, less bejewelled museum can be – it is less sedate museum and more bustling train station, but with some of the world’s greatest art hanging on its walls. Over the years, I’ve visited most of its galleries piecemeal, discovering something new every time – a van Gogh one day (Gallery 823), an Etruscan chariot another (Gallery 170) – but always looking for that one spot to just sit in and let the day’s concerns fall away.

I can’t remember exactly when I discovered Gallery 232. It is one of 54 galleries in the Asian Wing, whose highlights include a painstakingly faithful reconstruction of a 17th-century Chinese nobleman’s garden courtyard (Gallery 217), complete with adjoining reception room (218) decked out in Ming-era hardwood floors and furniture. The garden is a lovely spot to sit in, but it’s always full of visitors.

Gallery 232 has no such concerns. It is a low-lit, wood-panelled room at the end of the Japanese art galleries, past the Buddha statues, colourful kimonos and delicately ornate scrolls. It’s called the Japanese Reading Room but it is primarily used for demonstrations of flower arranging or traditional tea ceremonies. It is furnished with an L-shaped Japanese-style settee and a low-sitting boardroom table with chairs, all the work of George Nakashima, a Nisei pioneer of the American Craft movement.

I find it the most soothing room in the whole building. It’s easy to just sit there, reading occasionally, but mostly taking in the simple beauty of Nakashima’s creations – especially the table, designed in his signature style with large slabs of highly polished wood with unfinished natural edges, bound together in the most elegant way, with double-dovetail butterfly joints. When I’m done contemplating my occasionally disjointed place in the world, I walk over and stand by the interior window, looking down from a hidden height on the museum’s best-known exhibit – the Temple of Dendur.

This Egyptian temple, built around 15BC on the banks of the Nile, south of Aswan, is perhaps the best example of the Met’s unrestricted ambition to be the mother of all cultural institutions. In 1965, as a gesture of gratitude for US help in saving temples from the rising Nile following the construction of the dam at Aswan, the Egyptian government dismantled its 642 blocks and shipped them across the ocean, where in 1967 they were offered to the museum as part of their permanent exhibit. It’s an impressive sight, and worth visiting once, but it’s Nakashima’s table that keeps me coming back.

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