One of the World’s Biggest Museums Is Making Big Changes

One of the World’s Biggest Museums Is Making Big Changes

This article is part of the Fine Arts & Exhibits special section on the art world’s expanded view of what art is and who can make it.

“By the end of this, more than a quarter of our galleries will have changed,” Max Hollein, director and chief executive of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, said of the New York City institution’s many huge capital projects. “And we’re not closing the museum to do it. It’s open-heart surgery and the patient is awake.”

The number of renovations, new buildings and upgrades to museum spaces around the country has been rising steadily, ranging from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Frick Collection to the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Princeton University Art Museum. Some of the projects are taking years to complete.

Most museums embark on a new addition or a major renovation and then, once it is completed, take a good, long breather from capital projects.

But the Met — one of the world’s largest and most visited museums, with 3.4 million visitors last year — is a continuing construction site with a special challenge: It does not technically own its land or its buildings — it rents from the City of New York and is physically hemmed in by Central Park — and cannot expand its footprint.

Six large projects that began in 2015, many of which are still underway, are budgeted at a total of $2 billion. But that will likely not be the end of it.

The smallest of the capital projects, the 81st Street Studio, a children’s play and education space, opened in September. Construction continues of a new central chiller plant, to control humidity and cooling.

Next to debut, on Nov. 20, is the complete replacement of 30,000 square feet of skylights over the newly renovated European Paintings Galleries, at a cost of $150 million, making it the largest capital project in the Met’s history. (The skylights haven’t been substantially renovated since they were installed in the 1930s).

In 2025, a major overhaul of the Michael C. Rockefeller Wing will debut, and then the following year, the Galleries for Ancient and Near Eastern and Cypriot Art take their turn. And finally, what will become the museum’s most expensive single project is due in 2029: a new space for modern and contemporary art, the Tang Wing, at an estimated cost of half a billion dollars.

Someone has to wrangle all of this activity for the 153-year-old museum, and the job falls to Jhaelen Hernandez-Eli, the Met’s vice president of construction. He was hired three years ago.

Mr. Hollein, whose father was the Pritzker Prize-winning architect Hans Hollein, takes a keen interest in the massive building projects and wanted someone with a sensitivity to design; Mr. Hernandez Eli has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in architecture.

“It’s about more than being an expert manager and number cruncher,” Mr. Hollein said. “What we build has to be fit for the next century and fulfill the goals and values we’ve put forth — particularly about sustainability.”

Mr. Hernandez-Eli, who formerly oversaw design and construction for the city’s Economic Development Corporation, is a forceful speaker about how a museum’s infrastructure is more than just a shell holding a valued trove.

“Who makes those walls is as important as who you put on those walls,” he said recently. “Every dollar you spend is meant to address some issue as a way forward, for our posterity.”

The number of stakeholders involved in each project is nearly as impressive as the price tags. “There are 31 departments that have a say in the Tang Wing,” Mr. Hernandez-Eli said of the space being designed by the Mexican architect Frida Escobedo.

They include the relevant curators, the scientific research department (which worries about things like materials that emit potentially harmful substances), and the design and custodial departments. Because of the Met’s location and history, some decisions on new projects have to pass muster from various city agencies, particularly those related to landmark status.

“A lot of my day is actually managing taste,” Mr. Hernandez-Eli said of the feedback he has to synthesize. “The fun part, the challenging part, is when someone says, ‘I don’t like something,’ or ‘I like purple.’ What is it about the purple that makes it so special?”

He added, “What my department is accountable for, at the end of the day, is holding everybody else accountable for their inputs into the project.”

But Mr. Hernandez-Eli said that his role is not to automatically say no.

“If you boil it down to budgets and schedules, that’s never the best rationale,” he said, noting that sometimes it means cutting elsewhere or raising more money. “The best rationale is finding the theoretical, historical and then contemporary ethical framework for the decisions.”

Sustainability and environmental responsibility are now baked into all the architecture and design choices. The European paintings skylights project, alone, will reduce the Met’s overall carbon footprint by 7 percent — modern, high-performance systems mean less energy required for climate control — a huge savings from a change that most visitors will never notice.

“Skylights are one of the worst things you could ever do,” Mr. Hernandez-Eli said as a piece of free advice to all museum architects. “Water will get in over time. Don’t do them.”

The new skylights let in a more even and diffuse light, but the effect is subtle, and people will likely be more focused on the other changes to the galleries — still under wraps — and the installation on view, “Look Again: European Paintings 1300-1800.

“The emphasis on environmental performance and dealing with the climate crisis is not separate and apart from the discussion around aesthetics,” Mr. Hernandez-Eli said. “I think that oftentimes those two things get divorced. You’re either focused on what a thing looks like or how a thing performs. Our argument here is that they’re not mutually exclusive, they’re merged.”

The granite floor of the Rockefeller Wing, part of a 40,000-square-foot, $90 million redesign led by Kulapat Yantrasast and his firm WHY Architecture — in collaboration with the architecture firm Beyer Blinder Belle — is an instructive example.

Typically in such a project, all new floors would be a given. Instead, the decision was made to sandblast the existing shiny granite flooring to give it a rougher surface, saving an estimated $5 million and also saving a large addition to a landfill.

“I knew that if we refinished it, it would look completely different, but keep the same DNA,” Mr. Yantrasast said.

Mr. Hernandez-Eli said such moves were part of a strategy to look at “embodied carbon,” the carbon dioxide contained in construction materials, rather than just emissions like electrical use. “We looked at the floor and we said, ‘Why don’t we, instead of throwing it out, transform it?’”

The Met team also found a way to connect the decision to the artworks in the wing, which holds three separate collections: the arts of sub-Saharan Africa, Oceania and the ancient Americas.

“There’s a practice in the Sahel region of sub-Saharan Africa where every year they recoat their structures with mud, essentially,” Mr. Hernandez-Eli said. “It’s part of the care of those buildings, but also signifies refreshing anew.”

The architects also wanted to restore views of Central Park through the slanted window wall on the museum’s southern edge. Previously, the panes were opaque. “Many of the works are light sensitive, so there were concerns,” Mr. Yantrasast said. “Natural light in a museum is always a battle.”

The solution was to make the lower reaches of the glass clear, and it becomes more opaque as it rises to its 60-foot height. Collections were also arranged to be displayed in enclosed areas for more light-sensitive art.

“Max and Jhae were really supportive,” Mr. Yantrasast said. “Now the park is part of the museum again, but the art is protected.”

The Tang Wing, though seemingly far-off, is in the most stressful phase now, Mr. Hernandez-Eli said, because the design is not quite locked down and stakeholders are still weighing in.

“Tension is good,” he said. “There’s opportunity because it forces us to bring different perspectives to the table. Architecture is a way to build consensus.”

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Ted Loos

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