- Historic Sites
“American Art Really Exists”
said a New York newspaper when the Metropolitan opened its American Wing in 1924. This spring, a new, grander American Wing once again displays the collection that Lewis Mumford found “not merely an exhibition of art,” but “a pageant of American history.”
April/may 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 3
There were critics within the museum, including the then director, as well as in the art world at large, who felt that “those American things”—the furniture and other furnishings of period rooms—had no place in a museum of art. The Metropolitan’s director, a classicist and former director of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, had consulted his ex-colleagues at that institution, who confirmed his very dubious view of the matter. Others, however, among them the museum’s president, who with his wife provided funds for the new building, and a number of influential trustees and staff members thought otherwise. It was decided to go ahead with the sizable project and to let the public determine whether or not American domestic craftsmanship shown in this manner deserved the place in the history of art that it was being accorded in the new wing, alongside the treasures from ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome and all the historic cultures of the East and West.
The morning after the opening it became apparent that this new departure of the museum was going to be a remarkable popular success. For those whose image of the colonial world had been shaped by the somber tales of Nathaniel Hawthorne, with their frugal homespun simplicity, the colorful and handsome nature of the material on display came as a revelation. Why, exclaimed the New York World , neglecting the rules of grammar in its enthusiasm, “those ancestors of ours had taste equally if not surpassing ours!” Predictably more restrained, the New York Times rhetorically asked, for essential knowledge of the past “where can we look with more assurance of true guidance than to the homes of men?” Lewis Mumford, then at the beginning of his distinguished career as a critic, was quick to appreciate the museum’s new enterprise. “It is not merely an exhibition of art,” he wrote in The New Republic , “it is a pageant of American history … nothing so complete and so tactful has ever been accomplished by an American museum.”
That in the view of its sponsors the new exhibition was also considered something more than a vindication of American art was apparent in the addresses given at the opening ceremonies. Notes of sentiment and sentimentality were sounded—as clearly illustrated in the poster designed by Thomas Cleland to celebrate the occasion—along with appeals to patriotism, veneration for the Founding Fathers, and praise for the sterling characters and good taste of earlier generations of Colonists.
In some degree, this was an overreaction to the immigration problem on the part of the sponsors, for the most part persons of substance and with respectable pedigrees. Over the past decades millions on millions of immigrants had swarmed into the United States, people of widely different stock from those who had earlier come largely from northeastern Europe to settle the country. Now came central and eastern Europeans—Slavs of every stripe, Jews from everywhere, Italians, Greeks, peoples from the Danube, the Moldau, the Vistula, the Volga, the Arno—from the steppes of Russia and the shores of the Mediterranean, from mysterious lands whose very names stretched the imagination of the “old-fashioned American community,” as someone described the dignitaries who gave the Wing their blessing—people whom Henry James, himself an expatriate revisiting Boston early in the century, noticed with snobbish annoyance as “gross little foreigners.”
To many Americans of older stock this great tide of outlandish newcomers posed a serious threat to the nation. In one of the opening addresses at the Wing a prominent museum trustee pointed out that “traditions are one of the integral assets of a country.… Many of our people are not cognizant of our traditions and the principles for which our fathers struggled and died. The tremendous changes in the character of our nation and the influx of foreign ideas utterly at variance with those held by the men who gave us the Republic threaten, and unless checked may shake, the foundations of our Republic.” As sidelights on such fears, the Sacco-Vanzetti case was then awaiting a decision, and that same year Congress enacted the Immigration Act, which drastically reduced the torrent of immigration.
In still another opening address it was observed that with its period rooms and with the history that might be associated with them (in some cases by a considerable stretch of the imagination), the American Wing would provide “a setting for the traditions so dear to us and invaluable in the Americanization of many of our people to whom much of our history has been hidden in a fog of unenlightenment.” To this end schoolchildren would be given guided tours to help indoctrinate them with sound American notions; much as they were taught in school to sing of this “land where our fathers died, land of the Pilgrim’s pride,” although their fathers or grandfathers may have come to America as steerage passengers in cramped steamships centuries after the Mayflower and may have died in places far from Bunker Hill or Gettysburg. Here, as the late Dr. Margaret Mead once remarked, was an odd blending of the future and the past in which another man’s great-grandfather became the symbol of one’s grandson’s future.