The Morgan Library has always been a jumbled treasure chest of a museum. Founded upon the vast and varied collections of Pierpont Morgan (1837–1913), it seemed to lie scattered about here and there in the three fine old buildings on lower Madison Avenue. Neither the buildings nor the collections had the coherence of the city’s perfect mansion-museum, the Frick Collection. And that was always part of the Morgan’s disheveled charm. The Morgan was the un-Frick. It seemed chopped up, idiosyncratic, higgledy-piggledy. It was run, you assumed and hoped, by aristocratic librarians in frayed coats whose eyes would begin to gleam in the presence of a medieval reliquary of a certain standard. It was part period piece, part gallery, part harpsichord concert on a Sunday afternoon.
All that’s gone. The Italian architect Renzo Piano has rationalized the institution, creating a handsome and more conventional museum. Losing the jumble is cause for some regret; the eccentric is prized in our abstract, numbers-organized society. But the gain in this case is well worth the loss. The Morgan Library & Museum is today an orderly treasure chest, one in which it is easy to see and study the institution’s magnificent collections and also, unexpectedly, to relish the surrounding cityscape. From the outside, Piano’s design is undistinguished; the exterior rosy-white grid through which visitors will enter looks dull and vacant when compared with the richly nuanced brown and gray stones of the earlier buildings on either side. But his glassy interior, at once intimate and expansive, is marvelously scaled—just right for examining small things of great value. An ideal setting for the Morgan’s jewels.
Piano’s museum is constructed around a light-filled central courtyard, open and cheerful, from which visitors can take in views of new and old New York. You seem to enter a time-layered city and walk toward greenery. On one side of the courtyard are glass-walled offices, facing inward toward the atrium or courtyard. (Curatorial napping will become more difficult.) On the opposite side are galleries. Immediately at hand is a new twenty-foot cube of exhibition space, inspired by Platonic Renaissance proportions, that’s suffused with natural light. Traditionally, the Morgan’s galleries have been dark, in order to protect the manuscripts and works on paper that dominate its collections. In this new gallery, the museum can show off its medieval sculpture, enamels, and bejeweled metalwork in unusual brightness. You might argue that medieval art, created for religious reasons and used in churches and monasteries, looks better in subdued light. And I myself love a church gloom. But it was delightful to examine these familiar objects in Piano’s new cube. The fresh light awakens them and brings them close: They become more contemporary.
The museum has subtly spruced up its traditional, old-fashioned galleries. The curators make excellent use of freestanding display cases, called “easel tables,” which provide a better way of examining drawings than hanging them on the wall does: You almost seem to hold the Watteau in your hands. The museum has also refurbished elements of its old structures, particularly the 1902 McKim building. It used to be awkward to visit Pierpont Morgan’s lush office and library. Now visitors can easily find and wander through the period rooms, which are right off the central courtyard. The Morgan also has a new reading room for scholars. (Piano had to adjust his initial design for this room when informed that librarians must today keep a careful eye on scholars, lest one damage or steal from the books. “Ah,” the architect replied, “like a casino, you have to see everyone’s hands.”) The storage rooms deep underground have been expanded. Not least, the architect has designed a small 280-seat auditorium, with carefully adjusted acoustics, that will become an important venue for music and readings. Ideal, probably, for chamber works.
For the opening, the Morgan is proudly showcasing its collection in a variety of exhibitions containing more than 300 works, including drawings, literary and historical manuscripts, medieval and Renaissance books, music manuscripts, Near Eastern seals, goldsmithing, and printed books and bindings. The work has never looked better. New York has a modern jewel box.
J. P. Morgan Jr.’s brownstone, built in 1853, is the oldest of the buildings that house the Morgan Library. But it almost didn’t survive the postwar building boom. Beginning in 1945, it served as the headquarters of the United Lutheran Church in America, and in the mid-sixties, the church planned to replace it with an office tower. The brand-new preservation movement got its back up, and the house became one of the city’s first landmarks in 1965—only to see the designation overturned in court, when the church cited economic hardship. In the end, the Lutherans stood pat until 1988, when they sold the house to the library next door.