The Morgan Library & Museum

Edification value  
Entertainment value  
Should you go?  
Time spent  99 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned The West Room Vault, which Charles McKim designed so that Mr. Morgan could keep his most super-special books super safe.

Many of the city’s great institutions, maybe even most of them, were gifts to the public by plutocrats looking to give something back, improve their image, or maybe atone for awful things they did to get ahead.  Fro some people, it may diminish the joy of visiting somewhat to reflect on the ruthless profiteering that paid for all of it.  That’s especially true of the most personality-driven institutions, like the Morgan and the Frick.

And yet.  Your mileage may vary, but when I go to either of those two places, I’m sorely tempted to believe that they did it:  the institutions balance the scales, and their sins are erased by the magnificence of what they’ve left for posterity — me–  to enjoy.

Mr. Morgan’s Library, now open for your edification and gawking

The Morgan Library & Museum contains treasures.  It was literally Pierpont Morgan’s private library, so it combines gilded age period room splendor with a fascinating collection and space to put on dazzling temporary exhibitions.

Additionally, the Morgan is one of my favorite examples of marrying new architecture with old.  In 2006, Renzo Piano completed an incredible glass box that fits like a missing jigsaw puzzle piece with the older Morgan buildings.  The original library was built in 1906 by Charles McKim of McKim, Mead, and White, so it’s no slouch in the architecture department.  One of the things I like best about the new addition is it doesn’t try to erase the differences between the buildings that make up the campus, while still managing to unite them harmoniously. It also  adds more gallery space, fancy piston-based glass elevators, and a beautiful cafe with a tree and a view of the Empire State Building.

I love how the Morgan smells.  The parts that are more library than museum contain enough ancient tomes that the very air is permeated with old leather, paper, and erudition.

In a city with many a fancy ceiling, one of the fanciest of them all.

The Morgan owns three (three) Gutenberg Bibles.  Manuscripts of, it sometimes seems, everything ever written or composed by everyone.  A  collection of exquisite Babylonian cylinder seals.  Huge amounts of religious art.  It just goes on and on.  I saw scores by Mozart and Chopin and Mendelssohn.  And the first page of the original draft of General Grant’s first inaugural address on display.  And the Zir Ganela Gospels, from Ge’ez Ethiopia ca 1400.  And the only complete manuscript of a Jane Austen novel (of Lady Susan).

Its book and manuscript collection enable it to put on amazing shows just drawing from its own resources — “Delirium,” on the art of symbolist books, was on when I visited, along with a great show on Emily Dickinson (called “I’m Nobody!  Who are You?”), where I learned her handwriting was awful.  And a small show of old masters borrowed from the Swedish Nationalmuseum.

One of countless gold chalices

The Morgan also has at least a bit of a sense of humor. A fair number of things on display are not what Mr. Morgan thought they were — ingenious fakes, misattributed or misidentified works.  I get the sense that he was a bit of a sucker.  Or he just didn’t care — he’d Hoover up all the art there was, authenticity be damned.  Clearly art sleuthing has progressed a lot in the intervening century, and seeing fakes can be both instructive and entertaining.  Anyway, I like that they don’t hide them away or quietly dispose of them.

The Morgan contains wonders enough to balance a robber-baron’s debt to society.  I can almost guarantee you will see at least one thing, a document, a score, a letter, that takes your breath away. It is an incredibly fine museum, and everyone should go.

Morgan in the red

For Reference:

Address 225 Madison Avenue (at 36th Street), Manhattan
Cost  General Admission:  $20 (free Friday evenings)


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