NYC Impressions: visiting The Met & reflecting upon the vandalism on The Temple of Dendur

When I got to The Met, it hadn’t opened yet. I sat on its steps. Now, if you were not a Gossip Girl fan you won’t understand the meaning of this. One of the main characters, Upper East Sider Blair Waldorf, would go to sit on the steps of the Met during school breaks, with her friends (actually her minions) and she would always have to sit one step above everyone else to signify she was indeed the Queen B. I know, I know… Gossip Girl will always be one of the guilty pleasures I feel most guilty about. I am against so much that is portrayed on the show, yet I constantly feel drawn to it. And a lot of it was because it depicted the city I was fascinated with growing up – New York. Yes, in the lens of incredibly privileged, rich and more often than not, mean kids. But still…we are allowed to let ourselves dream even if for a little, right? Let me carry my sins.

Happy me at the steps of the Met
Some scenes of the show on the steps of the Met.

Yet, I am proud to say that my fascination with the Met goes way back. When I was a child, I asked my parents to purchase a collection of books dedicated to the greatest art museums in the world. It was my goal one day to actually visit them all. Of course one of those museums was The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

As a child, I also practised ballet and was obsessed with ballerinas. One of the artists I started admiring earlier on was Edgar Degas and his paintings and sculptures of ballerinas – and a huge part of this is exhibited at the Met. And, the famous painting of Georges de La Tour, The Penitent Magdalen – always admired the pensive aura of this painting, the sombre emotions that come over one’s eye. And I haven’t even mentioned the amazing collections of Egyptian artefacts.

On Privilege and Accessibility

The museum covers over 5,000 years of history from around the world. It dates back to 1866, in Paris, France, when a group of Americans agreed to the creation of a “national institution and gallery of art” to bring art education to the American people – of course, we are talking here about white, privileged and male American people.

In fact, The Metropolitan Museum was officially recognised in 2021 as being located in the homeland of the Indigenous Lenape, by installing a bronze plaque on the Fifth Avenue facade.

I’ve found myself often struggling with my intense interest and admiration for institutions like the Met. On one side, I cannot deny that I admire the great masters of the past – from Renaissance to Modern Art, all of these artists shared something in common. They were white, male and Western – either European or American. Privileged and colonising nations, achieved the wealth known for through slavery and colonialism. And this takes me to my second point – when I first visited the British Museum in London, in the midst of my excitement exploring the Egyptian Wing, the question no one seemed to be asking kept coming to my mind – was this supposed to be here? Doesn’t this belong to the people of Egypt? And this is just an example… Even now that the Met has a collection of Native Art in the same wing as European and American Art, supposed elevating its status, the Met still charges a price of $25 for those who want to visit (I believe the price has since risen to $30). At least, in London, most museums are free, something that I am so incredibly grateful for.

I suppose what I want to say is that just putting a bronze plaque in the building, or including a collection of Native American Art, doesn’t correct any wrongs. First, these can’t be corrected. And secondly, it is an action that counts. Why does it have to be still so inaccessible to those who cannot travel or be able to pay for the ticket? Native Americans should be able to see the remains of their history. According to the American Community Survey, 1 in 3 Native Americans is living in poverty, with a median income of $23,000 a year. A great percentage lives in reserves, with conditions that are equitable to those found in Third World Countries.

I just cannot stop feeling a sense of guilt about how lucky I am to be able to visit places such as these. I am very aware of the fallacy that meritocracy is – and that while I worked really hard to be able to be where I am now, my circumstances certainly allowed it. And It is really important to me that I never forget it.

Temple of Dendur

Now, when I entered the room where the Temple of Dendur is in the exhibition I felt I was levitating. I was never able to do any kind of meditation but I feel if there were a place I would succeed in doing it, that place would be that room. It’s simply magical. I can’t say if it’s a perfect recreation of how the Temple was once constructed (in actual Egypt, on the left bank of the Nile), but I like to think it is. Egypt ranks so high on my list of places I definitely want to visit before I die and seeing this made me want to pick up my phone and book a flight there (I wish it was that easy!). Of course, after my moment of feeling completely overcome by admiration for the Temple of Dendur, I had that question “why is this here in the United States?”.

Well, it was a gift. In the late 1950s, Egypt began the construction of the Aswan High Dam in the Nile. This was to provide better irrigation and hydroelectric power to Egypt’s growing population but at the price of several ancient structures built along the river’s banks – Dendur included. Since the Egyptian government couldn’t afford to move these ancient structures, UNESCO launched a fundraising campaign. The U.S. stepped up and it is said that it was Jacqueline Kennedy who urged JFK to convince Congress to approve $10M for the cause. And this is how the Temple of Dendur ended up in the Metropolitan Museum of New York.

What immediately caught my eye once I got closer to the carved walls of the temple, was that there were other carvings that one doesn’t typically find in artefacts in museums. Graffitis. What the f* Leonardo from 1820!? I exclaimed to myself. But then I realised Leonardo from 1820 wasn’t the only one who decided to leave his mark in this temple, which at the time was still located in Egypt. The first marks were done just five years after the temple was built, dating back to 10 BC, done in colloquial Egyptian script. Then in 400 AD, a few Greek Coptic Christian inscriptions were made when the temple was temporarily converted to a Christian church. Only after, in the 19th century, comes our friend Leonardo & Co – a group of travellers who felt like chiselling their names into the sandstone.

While this is a bit annoying, I cannot stop chuckling. Humans being humans since the beginning of Humanity. It seems we can’t stop ourselves from trying to leave our mark.

While the Temple of Dendur is definitely a highlight of the museum, just be prepared to spend a good few hours inside. I was there for three hours and I feel I was very far from properly seeing everything – I’d say that is just an impossible task for a one-day visit. Still, I had an absolutely amazing time, travelling through eras and places within the beautiful wings of the Met. And feeling incredibly privileged and grateful I was there. I was finally at the Met, accomplishing a childhood dream.

Love, Nic

3 thoughts on “NYC Impressions: visiting The Met & reflecting upon the vandalism on The Temple of Dendur

  1. I was nodding a lot reading this post. ‘Why is this here’ – that truly is the question. The Egyptian Temple is lovely and comes with an interesting story. At least enjoying it is made less complicated by it being a donation. There’s an interesting podcast that I’ve been meaning to listen more of, but have not yet found the time: Stuff The British Stole. It tells the history of various artefacts from the British Museum, which as you rightly point out is free. Thirty dollars is quite steep if you imagine a family of four going for a visit. On top of that, there’s the issue of only a tiny part of their massive collection being displayed at any given moment. Thousands of objects hoarded and kept in a dragon’s den.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thnaks Leighton for reading! I’ll definitely look up that podcast, is seems like something I’d like to listen to. there is also a book on my TBR list called “The Whole Picture” by Alice Procter that reflects upon this topic.

      New York is not accessible at all culture wise, I’d say. In London, you have so many museums you can go to as much as you’d like for free (and you should, as you can’t possibly see everything in one day). I know some museums in NY offer a special price or even free entry but only for NY residents, so not very inclusive… I just hope London doesn’t change!

      Liked by 1 person

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