Exhibit of the week
The Philippe de Montebello Years: Curators Celebrate Three Decades of Acquisitions

Metropolitan Museum of Art
New York
Through Feb. 1

When some people retire they get a going-away party and a gold watch, said Holland Cotter in The New York Times. When the director of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art retires, he gets an exhibition mounted in his honor. During Philippe de Montebello’s 30-year tenure at the helm of America’s largest private museum, the Met has acquired more than 84,000 precious objects and works of art. This exhibition brings together 300 of them in a “madly eclectic” fashion. Tibetan paintings from the Middle Ages sit beside a “nothing-but-the-finest” arrangement of drawings by Michelangelo, Titian, Raphael, and others. A 16th-century Flemish tapestry holds down a wall near “Chinese scrolls, Greek vessels, Oceanic effigies, and an 18th-century American pickle holder.” Objects both beautiful and strange blur the lines between high and low culture, demonstrating that during de Montebello’s tenure, the Met has become a far more “culturally inclusive” museum.

Actually, the diversity of this exhibition is a reminder of how delightfully old-fashioned the Met remains, said Miriam Cosic in The Australian. Once upon a time, all museums strove to be “universal encyclopedic collections” that spanned the breadth of human history. Over the past few decades, many museums have been guilty of “pandering to the lowest common denominator” to attract more visitors. But the Met has been enjoying its “glory days” as an institution, setting box-office records even while mounting important scholarly exhibitions.

How odd, then, to celebrate the era with a disorganized grab bag of an exhibition that fails to meet the Met’s own exacting standards, said Linda Yablonsky in Bloomberg.com. Though fascinating, this show “looks like a glorified pawn shop in some galleries and a marvelous cabinet of curiosities in others.” Rather than group objects in a logical fashion, such as by medium or country of origin, curators have arrayed them in the order in which they were acquired by the Met. This results in “confounding, centuries-wide leaps” from one period to the next, which keep the viewer constantly off balance. A Lucian Freud nude from the early 1990s contrasts jarringly with a “fastidiously carved marble bust of 17th-century Florentine patron Cosimo III de Medici,” while nearby an 18th-century Vermeer painting of a young girl “gazes calmly” at a forlorn 13th-century terra-cotta figure created in Mali. This exhibition makes the Met’s acquisitions seem not only “encyclopedic” but nearly overwhelming.