The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Atlas Obscura's Guide - Atlas Obscura

Atlas Obscura's Guide to
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

From the street, the Metropolitan Museum of Art is hard to miss: The institution’s two-million-square-foot main building, at 1000 Fifth Avenue, spans four New York City blocks and stretches into Central Park. Inside the galleries, you’ll find thousands of objects spanning 5,000 years of world history.

With so many treasures under one roof, it's inevitable that some fascinating pieces are tucked into the museum's lonelier nooks and crannies, hiding in plain sight. The next time you spend a day at the museum, keep an eye out for these overlooked wonders.

Can you spot the arboreal visitor? Beth Dixson
Fanciful Fresco

1. A Rescued Wall Painting With a Secret

The ancient villa of P. Fannius Synistor at Boscoreale was probably a nice place to live—it was close to the Bay of Naples, and tastefully appointed, with scores of colorful, ostentatious wall paintings and soaring columns flanking a central courtyard. But when Mount Vesuvius roared in the year 79, the whole place was blanketed by ash. The structure remained buried for hundreds of years, until excavations in the late-19th and early-20th centuries unearthed some of those frescos. Teams cleaved them from the walls and put them up for auction, and the paintings fanned out to museums across Europe and America. Several of them ended up at the Met, and this one contains a hidden-in-plain-sight treat for those who look closely.

Toward the bottom left corner of one painting, you’ll find the shape of a leaf. The wall text suggests that it may have blown in and settled on the work while it was still wet. We don’t know the whole story, or even who painted these works, but if you spin to your right and catch a glimpse of the leafy trees lining Fifth Avenue, beyond the museum’s windows, it just might remind you that there’s not so much distance between the past and the present.

Greek and Roman Art, First Floor, Gallery 164

The couple seems intimate, but researchers aren't sure whether they're mortal or divine. Beth Dixson
Wearable Art

2. An Ancient Embrace, Memorialized in Amber

Head up to the mezzanine, then go south. As you wander, take in the view of the sculptures below you. If you look closely, you might spy coins glinting in the little fountain—at least until staffers fish them out—or notice the patchwork floor, a reminder that the ancient world was full of riotous color. Take a right at the southern end of the gallery, and then continue all the way to the end of the next one. The labyrinthine route is worth it. When you arrive at the dark corner, you'll find an object still shrouded in mystery.

Alone in a case near the far wall, you’ll find a chunk of amber depicting a woman draped over a reclining man, with a bird perched on her shoulder and an attendant at her feet. This large, saucy scene once topped a fibula—a pin used to fasten clothes—and it hasn’t lost any of its allure since it was carved in ancient Italy around 500 B.C. Photographs hardly do it justice. From a chunk of fossilized tree resin—the stuff that often traps insects—an anonymous sculptor coaxed fabric that looks soft, pillowy, and touchable. Up close, the unassuming little object feels liquid and luminous. When the light strikes it, the figures look warm and golden, like honey or syrup, and the carving is just as beguiling as the gems nearby.

Greek and Roman Art, Mezzanine, Gallery 170

The chart told navigators where to go. Beth Dixson
Wondrous Wayfinding

3. A Sleek Seafaring Chart

Duck into the stairwell to the left of the carved amber, or retrace your steps back toward the frescoes and take the elevator. You’re steering yourself to the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas in pursuit of a rebbilib, or stick chart.

These are navigational tools used by Marshallese people to plot out canoe journeys in the Pacific Ocean. On this 19th- or 20th-century version, coconut midrib forms a sparse, sculptural shape that conveys a lot of information: The charts described everything from wave patterns to geography, down to the location of particular islands. The circle at the top right could be an island, according to the museum, while the undulating curves might have indicated currents. A navigator would have brushed up on these details from the safety of land, and committed them to memory before reaching the water.

Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, First Floor, Gallery 353

Go for the gold. Beth Dixson
Glittering Garb

4. Pre-Columbian Adornments

No wonder this gallery is sometimes known as the “treasury.” In this collection of wearable pre-Columbian art, there are a few flecks of blazing turquoise, such as on a pair of chunky, mosaicked ear flares, but mostly it’s gold, gold, gold.

Don’t miss the big-cheeked funerary masks, the sculptural diadems, or the dangling nose ornaments, like this one, worn by the Yotoco people in the Cauca Valley of Colombia sometime between the first and seventh centuries. As you look at these objects, challenge yourself to imagine what it would have felt like to wear them. Picture the clanging sound, the cold feel of the metal against your skin, and the way it would flash in the sunlight. Then, when you’re ready to move on, you don’t have far to go: Your next stop is just to your left as you exit the treasury.

Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, First Floor, Gallery 357

Quite the feast. Beth Dixson
Afterlife Architecture

5. A Really, Really Old Home

Any archeology enthusiasts in the house? You’re probably familiar with some of the architecture of the ancient Americas, since present-day South and Central America are dotted with pyramids, tombs, and other ruins of empire. It’s all well and good to visit the remnants of these grand, ambitious construction projects, but this part of the world was home to miniature architectural wonders, too. Several of them are in this case.

These small structures might evoke dollhouses or models for larger buildings, but they weren’t for play or preparation: Instead, they were effigies that would be tucked into tombs. This one, showing a busy feast attended by 26 people and several dogs and birds, comes from the Nayarit culture in Mexico, and was made between 100 B.C. and the year 200. “Similar to the feasts themselves,” museum experts wrote in 2015, “the models clarify the connection between the sacred and the civic, the ritual and the quotidian, and in doing so underscore the domestic basis for all aspects of Nayarit society and belief.”

Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, First Floor, Gallery 358

An elephant never forgets... to snuff out the candles in its trunk. Beth Dixson
Divisive Decor

6. The Elephant (Vase) in the Room

Pass through the sun-drenched European sculpture court, and the archway of the red-brick wall that marks a onetime entrance to the museum, and continue until you reach a set of cases that look like opulent hutches. These hold wacky, soft-paste porcelain vases that once received a bumpy reception. 

In the 1750s, the artists at Sèvres, a prominent French manufacturer, were letting their imaginations stampede—and the resulting objects sometimes generated some brutal insults. The more is more aesthetic didn't sit well with Thomas Bentley, who worked with the potter Josiah Wedgwood and once wrote that the vases were “of the worst and clumsiest forms imaginable.” Harsh! But Madame de Pompadour, tastemaker and favored mistress of King Louis XV, was a fan of them. She supposedly snapped up at least three sets of the pachyderm-style vases, whose trunks would have been packed with skinny candlesticks.

European Sculpture and Decorative Arts, First Floor, Gallery 529

Time for a nap? Beth Dixson
Cool Kennel

7. A Dog House Fit for Royalty

Turn left into the European period rooms, where a warren of sumptuous drapery and glittering chandeliers awaits. It’s easy to imagine Marie Antoinette swanning through here with her bouffant bouncing while music tinkled in the background—and the end of the hallway, you’ll find a kennel fit for one of her royal canines. Many dogs had it good in 18th-century France, bedding down in plush kennels designed to look like luxe human furniture. That was doubly true for the queen’s furry companions. Marie Antoinette’s niche de chien was built from gilded beech and pine, lined with silk, and covered with rich velvet. A pretty dreamy place for a snooze.

European Sculpture and Decorative Arts, First Floor, Gallery 526

Mick, is that you? Beth Dixson
Serendipitous Stained Glass

8. A Centuries-Old Mick Jagger Doppelgänger

Make your way toward Medieval Art, past the monumental choir screen on your left, and continue into the long, narrow gallery that leads toward the American Wing. Stop in front of the parade of stained glass panels, and look for a familiar face.

If Mick Jagger had been around in the 16th century, he would have been a busy guy. Somewhere in his grueling schedule of grooving and shaking, he would have had to find time to pet some Good Boys and banish the plague—at least, that’s what you might suspect if you stand in front of this panel depicting Saint Roch, the 13th-century patron saint of dogs who was also invoked to quell disease. On this panel—made in Cologne and once installed in a prominent family’s private chapel—Roch’s long, narrow face bears a striking resemblance to the Rolling Stones frontman. That makes for one heck of a satisfying coincidence.

Medieval Art, First Floor, Gallery 306

It's easy to muse on death when it's staring you in the face. Beth Dixson
Macabre Memento

9. Skeletal Rosary

Go a little deeper into the gallery, and things get more existential. In a case on your right, you’ll see an enormous rosary that dates to 16th-century Germany. The inscription reminded readers to “think of death”—and doing so is probably inevitable when you’re holding a hulking, intricate memento mori that looks a whole lot like Harvey Dent. The ivory figures are half-flesh, half-bone, and the silver chain connecting them looks almost like a spine. Handling this rosary would probably have been a reminder that the reaper comes for everyone, and that some people make virtuosic, dazzling art before they turn to dust.

Medieval Art, First Floor, Gallery 306

This armor is especially ornate and colorful. Beth Dixson
Artful Armor

10. Well-Heeled Warriors

Continue on to the sunny Charles Engelhard Court, and pop into the cafe if you’re hankering for a snack. If not, keep marching, and turn into the Arms and Armor galleries. Pass the warriors atop their suited-up steeds, and continue into the gallery just beyond the oxidized bronze cannon. Turn right. Tucked inside this nook, you’ll find a brigade of armors from 18th-century Japan, and some sharp earlier examples, too. Designed to be worn by fearsome soldiers, they’re also fabulous works of art, festooned with iron, lacquer, silk, copper, leather, hemp, hair, bone, and more. Get up close to marvel at the colorful silk lacing on the kusazuri, or skirts. Let your eyes wander around the getups, and you’ll spot plum blossoms, dragons, and clouds.

When you’ve explored enough, head back through the wide-open central gallery, and then to the elevators at the northeast corner of the room. Ride up to the second floor, where music awaits.

Arms and Armor, First Floor, Gallery 377

This instrument is thought to be one of only two of its kind in the world. Beth Dixson
Intricate Instrument

11. Awesome Accordion

These recently reopened galleries are full of treasures—some subtle, some totally not, like the huge harpsichord that commands a central place in the room. Ignore that, if you can: You’re here to bask in the skinnier, quieter wonders, like the little accordion on a nearby wall. It may be smaller, but it’s got style for days, with raucous blue, green, and pink designs, embossed silver foil, and two rows mother-of-pearl keys. Paris was a hot spot for accordion enthusiasts in the 1800s, and this artful instrument—made in the City of Light sometime around 1850—is an example of a heavily decorated style that was en vogue at the time.

Musical Instruments, Second Floor, Gallery 681

The instrument was operated via a hand crank just below the stage. Beth Dixson
Streetcorner Symphony

12. A Busker's Barrel Piano

Musicians have wailed on New York City streets for centuries. This barrel piano, made in Brooklyn around 1860, would have been “hauled about by an itinerant busker accompanied by a begging monkey or ragamuffin,” Laurence Libin, emeritus curator of musical instruments, once wrote. The hand-cranked instrument could be called upon to play one of several different tunes, preprogrammed by brass pins  arranged inside. To delight passersby, painted figures moved in time to the music on a little makeshift stage. The museum has an audio sample of the piano’s tinny, plucky rendition of “Yankee Doodle.” It’s easy to picture the bell being drowned out by the din of trolleys, fruit sellers, and the other hubbub of a 19th-century street, and not hard to imagine being charmed enough to stop and stare for a while.

Head back downstairs and cut through the Temple of Dendur for a scenic shortcut to the next stop.

Musical Instruments, Second Floor, Gallery 681

The beef was wrapped in linen before being entombed in this wooden box. Beth Dixson
Ancient Beef

13. A Meaty Offering

Under the right conditions, foodstuffs can stick around for a long, long time—consider the Irish bog butter that’s been swaddled in peat for thousands of years. Add to that list a big chunk of beef shoulder, stored in its own wooden box. Tucked in a tomb in Western Thebes between 1550 and 1479 B.C., it was probably an offering to the person interred nearby.

I’ll grant you this: Tattered, grisly, and a little damp-looking, this isn’t the most attractive sight you’ll find in a museum full of thousands and thousands of stunners. (It’s not even the prettiest thing in this long, narrow gallery, which is packed to the gills with beads, tools, pendants, and wonderfully detailed coffins.) But it and the funky old fowl next to it look so utterly familiar—like anything you’d find at the butcher, or twirling on a supermarket rotisserie—and they viscerally evoke the ways that ancient Egyptians prepared the dead for the afterlife.

Egyptian Art, First Floor, Gallery 109

These hair ornaments may have been worn like this... or maybe not. Beth Dixson
Ancient Accessories

14. Historic Hair Ornaments

Sometimes, when your hair is finally just the way you want it, and you know you’re looking good, you just want to leave it be. These little gold tubes could have been jewelry designed to be fastened in place just once, and then left alone.

Then again, that’s a bit of a guess. The wig in this case isn’t original—it’s a modern way of displaying these gold rings, found scattered atop the muddy surface of a tomb in El Lahun in 1914. They date to the period between 1887 and 1813 B.C., and based on other depictions, scholars suspect that the ornaments may have been worn this way. The jewelry is flashy and fun, and a good reminder that history often involves well-researched hunches.

Egyptian Art, First Floor, Gallery 111

Scholars often remark that the subject's right eye looks different from his left. Beth Dixson
Funerary Art

15. A Very Personal Portrait

Humans have been getting sick for as long as we’ve been alive. This portrait—made with encaustic on lime wood sometime between the years 190 and 210—apparently depicts one way of treating eye disease in Egypt under Roman rule. Some ancient papyri described eye troubles and ways to treat them, including with copper or other heavy metals. This portrait, which was fastened to a wrapped mummy, suggests that this young man with a feathery mustache survived a surgical incision beneath his right eye, and had the scar to prove it. Mummy portraits, as they’re known, are inextricably linked to death—after all, they were designed to spend eternity cuddled up against a corpse. Still, the subjects feel vivid and vibrant. With his flushed skin and expressive eyes, it’s almost as though this young man could take a deep breath and start speaking to us.

Egyptian Art, First Floor, Gallery 138

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