|About the collection|
Although The Metropolitan Museum of Art made its first acquisitions among these fields—a group of Peruvian antiquities—as early as 1882, and
a pair of Mexican eagle reliefs was given by the American artist Frederic Church in 1893, no significant commitment to the arts of Africa,
Oceania, or the Americas was made until 1969. At that time, Nelson A. Rockefeller offered the entire collection of a museum that he had founded
in 1954 in association with René d'Harnoncourt, the Museum of Primitive Art, to the Metropolitan Museum. Included in the gift were 3,300 works
of art, a specialized library, and a photographic collection. A separate department for the care, study, and exhibition of these works and study
materials was then established at the Metropolitan.
Today the collection of the Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas is housed in the Michael C. Rockefeller Wing, named for
Nelson Rockefeller's son, who collected many of the Asmat objects from Papua Province (western New Guinea), Indonesia, that are now in the
Museum. Among the most spectacular objects in the wing are the nine fifteen-foot-high Asmat memorial poles (bis) collected by Michael
Rockefeller during an expedition to New Guinea in 1961. The Rockefeller Wing, designed as a mirror image of the Sackler Wing, opened to the
public in February 1982 with 40,000 square feet of exhibition space on the south side of the Museum.
The African component of the department's collection covers a large geographical area, from the western Sudan south and east through central
and southern Africa. The works of art range from refined Afro-Portuguese ivories of the fifteenth century to formally powerful Fang reliquary
figures that appealed to early-twentieth-century artists such as Jacob Epstein and André Derain, and include figurative and architectural
sculpture, masks, seats of leadership, staffs of office, ceremonial vessels, and personal ornaments. Many of these objects were created to
reinforce the rank and prestige of regional leaders, others to indicate the collective status of initiates invested with specific social responsibilities,
still others to pay homage to ancestral forces. While wood is the primary medium, objects made of stone, terracotta, gold, silver, and ivory are
also present, as are textiles and beadwork.
Objects that originated in the Pacific Islands (the archipelagos of Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia), Australia, and Island Southeast Asia
constitute the Oceanic component of the department's collection. Covering more than a third of the earth's surface, Oceania subsumes more
than a thousand distinct cultures and an immense diversity of artistic traditions. While the earliest examples of Oceanic art—the rock paintings of
the Australian Aboriginals—are thought to be over 40,000 years old, the majority of surviving works date from the eighteenth through the
twentieth century. Though the Metropolitan's collection is particularly strong in the sculpture from the island of New Guinea, both from the Sepik
River region and from Papua Province in the west, it also introduces visitors to the elegant realism of sculpture from Polynesia and Island
Southeast Asia; to the angular, minimalist aesthetic of objects from Micronesia; to surreal, otherworldly images of Melanesian ancestors and
spirits; and to the graceful figures and vibrant abstractions of Australian Aboriginal art.
The department's holdings from the ancient Americas, primarily from Mexico and Peru, represent a 3,500-year period beginning at about 2000 B.
C.E. and ending with the arrival of Europeans in America in the late fifteenth century C.E. Among these Precolumbian objects are Olmec
ceramics from the first millennium B.C.E. in Mexico; colorful mosaic ear ornaments by Peru's Moche peoples from about a thousand years later;
and a ceremonial wood figure of about 1500 C.E. from the Caribbean. The Jan Mitchell Treasury for Precolumbian Works of Art in Gold, which
opened in the South American Gallery in 1993, houses the most comprehensive display of American gold objects in the world. Other materials
featured in the collection include stone, silver, jade, textiles, and featherwork.
A recent gift of particular note is that of Mr. and Mrs. Klaus G. Perls, in which well over one hundred works from the Court of Benin in Nigeria
were added to the collection. Dating from the sixteenth through the nineteenth century, the Perls' gift consists of brass figures and architectural
plaques, carved ivory altar tusks, musical instruments, boxes, staffs, and courtly and personal ornaments, among other objects. This important
addition of royal art has been installed, together with the Metropolitan's other holdings from the Court of Benin, in the center of the recently
renovated Benenson Gallery for African Art. The Benenson Gallery, which opened to the public in early 1996, displays approximately four
hundred works, representing many of the regions of sub-Saharan Africa.