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The Atrium That Ate the Morgan

Renzo Piano‘s gloriously light-filled and complexly layered atrium for the reconfigured Morgan Library and Museum is a universally admired triumph. There’s just one problem: In providing the ultimate “wow” space, Piano has taken Morgan out of the Morgan.

Part of the mystique of any house museum is the spirit of the master of the house. But now J.P. Morgan‘s outsized ego has been supplanted by Piano’s beautiful but discordantly sleek addition. New Yorkers will love this gorgeous space, as I did. But the luxurious old-world ambiance of the robber baron’s plush lair is upstaged by this upstart, with its modern glass-and-steel pizzazz.

Yes, you can still ogle the old man’s study and library, with the added delight—thanks to heightened security—of actually being able to walk around inside the study, instead of peering at it from behind ropes. The desire to get up-close and personal with the Memlings can at last be realized. But these rooms now feel like a minor diversion from the main architectural event.

Even worse, the galleries for viewing the Morgan’s drawings, manuscripts and other treasures on the main floor are hard to find after walking through the lobby into the main atrium. They are tucked away in a corner, behind a closed door, marked with unhelpfully small signage.

This reminds me of a comment made a few years ago in a public forum by the late Kirk Varnedoe, after he had left his post as chief curator of painting and sculpture at MoMA. Taking a dim view of the new fashion for “the big ‘wow’ space” in museums, he observed: “You’’ve got to tuck the art in the corner and then you’ve got huge problems.”

The most prominent, easy-to-find gallery in the Modern Morgan is Piano’s 20-foot cube housing the museum’s iconic medieval treasures. The goal is to foster intimacy with the objects. But the intimacy is more likely to be with hoards of visitors trying to cram into this too-tight space.

The scholars’ reading room and the new concert hall are suavely elegant, and the underground storage vaults, off-limits to the public and the press, are state-of-the-art. The literary, historic and musical manuscripts and the prints and drawings are as engrossing as always and have more gallery space than ever. So, enjoy the new Morgan, but savor your memories of the old!

an ArtsJournal blog