MORGAN LIBRARY
Tuesday 09 Nov 2010

 

Can the Morgan Library's architecture solidify its future?

The heart of The Morgan Library & Museum - a private study and library designed for financier Pierpont Morgan by McKim Mead and White - reopened Saturday after the completion of a $4.5m restoration at the capable hands of New York architect Beyer Blinder Belle and lighting designer Renfro Design Group. With this work now complete, the public can feast its eyes on more of the Morgan's prized collection of artworks, manuscripts and rare books, as they make their way from the museum's subterranean vaults to newly expanded exhibition spaces. But at today's opening, where there was barely a person under the age of fifty in attendance, another more pressing concern may be looming in the Morgan's future, namely whether it can remain relevant in the age of social media; whether anyone of this or future generations will care to see one of its three Guttenberg bibles.

Like many museums of its ilk, The Morgan's greatest challenge is how to make its collection appealing to a younger audience. It has already begun to address this by initiating a Facebook page, bringing in more contemporary exhibitions like the current one on artist Roy Lichtenstein, and hosting events such as musical performances and lectures in its new theatre, designed by Renzo Piano in 2006 as part of a larger project to expand the Morgan's exhibition space and knit together its campus. Only time will tell if the Morgan's efforts to mix it up a bit are enough to breathe new life into this august repository or whether its efforts are too little too late. It certainly doesn't help matters that the Morgan is relatively isolated compared to other New York museums, for example those in Central Park, namely the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim and the Museum of Natural History, which have strength in numbers.

I for one hope the Morgan will rise to the challenge of reinventing itself because if it doesn't, New York will be sadly less without it. The Italian marble villa designed in the spirit of the High Renaissance is considered one of New York's great architectural treasures and its interiors are regarded as some of the most beautiful in the country. The Morgan is one of only two places in the city where the public can see the work of the Italian architect Renzo Piano, the New York Times building being the other but offering limited access. And the Morgan's McKim building is one of the few buildings in New York designed by Charles McKim that is accessible to the public.

With regards the Morgan's collection, it is unsurpassed in the United States. For the opening, hundreds of treasures spanning more than 3000 years were on view, some never before exhibited. Such works included a rare jeweled cover of the Lindau Gospels, a Life Mask of George Washington by Jean-Antoine Houdon, a rare copy of the Declaration of Independence and hand penned letters by Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson. There was also a bust of the Christ Child by Antonio Rossellino and a diptych by Hans Memling. But the piece de resistance was a series of tablets from Mesopotamia and Babylonia some of which predate writing.

A modernist at heart, I could barely pry myself away from Mr. Morgan's Library with its fine architectural detail and its majestic thirty ft walls, lined floor to ceiling with triple tiers of bookcases made of inlaid Circassian walnut and featuring volumes of European literature from the sixteenth through twentieth centuries. Or from his study with its Renaissance inspired décor replete with paintings, sculpture and decorative arts that reveal Mr. Morgan to be among other things a 'modern day Medici'.

Now in a condition as good if not better than it was when it opened more than a hundred years ago, let's hope the Morgan isn't like a scorned debutante - all dressed up with no place to go. The question for the Morgan going forward is not one of if they build it will they come, but rather if they come will it be ready?

Sharon McHugh
US Correspondent