About 4,000 years ago, an Egyptian senior government official named Meketre rode up the Nile, his dozen oarsmen straining against the prevailing northerly winds. Meketre was a kind of data collector, tasked with accounting the comings and goings of royal goods. As he stood on his boat, he may have been conducting a census of cattle or a count of baskets of grain along the twisting waterway. While in transit, Meketre sat in the boat’s cabin under the cover of a leather awning, partly rolled up to let in the breeze. Data-gathering in those ancient days being an apparently epicurean profession, he sniffed a lotus flower while enjoying the music made by the boat’s on-board harpist. Nearby in the cabin, guarded by a dutiful servant, sat his quarry, a trunk that would make a nice spot to put the expedition’s accounts.
He still sits in his boat, millennia later. Meketre was buried, around 2000 B.C., with intricate models of himself, possibly depicting him on his empirical missions. One of those models is a boat that is just shy of 6 feet long, with a miniature Meketre made of painted coniferous wood placed in the center. The boat rows alongside five other vessels ever motionlessly on a glass Nile in Gallery 105 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
But now the counter has become the counted. This model cow-counter was beautifully preserved and discovered in the real Meketre’s tomb, near Luxor, in 1920 by the Met’s famed excavator, Herbert Winlock. The museum acquired the fleet that same year, whereupon the boats would’ve been displayed and duly recorded on a catalog card by the museum’s Egyptian department. Now, though, the museum has entered the age of Big Data, and the catalogs have become a database. In December of last year, the museum uploaded its master spreadsheet, “MetObjects,” to a repository on GitHub, an online data and code repository; the version I’ll use here, uploaded on March 13, contains 446,123 objects. It’s a data set born of paint and pens, of scepters and swords. Meketre’s traveling boat floats in it, too, denoted by strings of numerals: Accession Number 20.3.1, Object ID 544214.
When taken as a whole, the database reveals the Met’s cultural double helix. One strand is the institutional history of the Met, probably the single most important museum in the country. All of its global ambitions are present: its deals with foreign governments, its curatorial preferences, its big-dollar gifts and funding, its public failings. The other strand is the geopolitical history of the world: the rise and fall of empires, conquest and killing, natural disaster and migration, industrial revolution and invention. Together, those two strands form the Met’s DNA.
Each microscopic dot above is a piece in the Met’s collection — a single nucleotide in its DNA. The image shows the 10 countries with the most objects in the Met and is a sort of genomic sequencing of the museum itself. (The museum was founded in 1870.) Its Egyptian excavations are plain to see, as are significant moments of acquisition, like the one that happened with Iranian pieces around 1940. The Met struck a similar deal with the Iranians that allowed digs in the important medieval city of Nishapur so long as half the finds went to a museum in Tehran. Between 1935 and 1940, the Met acquired nearly 1,800 objects from the country. But Manhattan real estate being what it is, relatively few of those 1,800 objects — or the 31,000 from Egypt, 8,000 from the U.S. or 3,400 from Peru — are on public display. (Only 10 percent of the Met’s collection is on view in the museum at any given time.) Only with data can you take the cultural blimp up high enough to see the collection all at once.
In this chart, we’re tugging at the world-history strand of the Met’s double helix. Among the Met’s most-collected categories of art (the museum’s top 10 object categories are shown), when were those things made?1 You can see profound historical phenomena in this chart: the invention of the printing press, the invention of photography, the long human histories of glass and ceramics, the creation of oil paint,2 and the key cultural and anthropological role of vases in the ancient Mediterranean world.
The Met’s collection contains more than 5,000 objects that the data classifies as “vases” — jugs, bowls, amphorae, alabastra and lekythoi of all kinds. The vases of five cultures are especially well-represented. Through this subset of the vase collection alone — and the liquids they carried — an empirical art tourist can receive a crash course in Western history. For more than 1,500 years, the Minoans did well for themselves on the island of Crete. Vase-wise, their intricate work went on to influence many later designs in the region. Around 1450 B.C., however, something very bad happened. Exactly what it was is debated — it may have been an invasion from the mainland or a volcanic eruption.
Either way, boom: no more Minoan vases. The Mycenaeans, who may have caused that devastation on Crete, took over from there. They, in turn, were laid to waste by a historically murky “wave of destruction.” Centuries later, the Attic Greeks3 mastered so-called “black-figure” and “red-figure” pottery, which depicted “funerary rites, daily life, symposia, athletics, warfare, religion, and mythology” and cornered the Mediterranean export market — and now devour space at the Met. The Greek city-states defeated the Persians in the Persian Wars, and Athens went on to command Greece, artistically and otherwise. Around the same time, the Etruscans were also doing their thing in ancient Italy, heavily influenced by the Greeks. Their signature contribution to the vase form is bucchero, distinguished by its shiny black surface. And then came the Romans, conquering the Etruscans and defeating the final Hellenistic dynasty, subsuming Greek artistic culture in their wake.
A physical museum is itself a sort of data set — an aggregation of the micro in order to glimpse the macro. One vase means little on its own, beyond perhaps illustrating a scene from daily life. But together with its contemporaries, it means the contours of a civilization. And when juxtaposed against all vases, it helps create a first-hand account of the history of the world.
On a recent morning, I went to the Met to talk about how this digital data set came together. As docents and guards readied the museum for opening, I took a seat at a large conference table with Jennie Choi, the general manager of collection information, and her colleagues Loic Tallon, the Met’s chief digital officer, and Spencer Kiser, the media technology manager. All three stressed that for the museum, the release of the data is in aid of practical, measurable institutional goals. Important among these is simply driving traffic to the museum’s website. “We want our collection as accessible as possible,” Choi said. “We want to reach new audiences. We want to make collections available that aren’t on view.” Sure enough, the group had printed out a web traffic report for me before I arrived.
The public data itself was released quietly, an afterthought to the museum’s splashy announcement that it was entering over 375,000 images of its artworks into a Creative Commons Zero license — which means that they are available for free and unrestricted use.4 Since then, some enterprising art fans have put the releases to esoteric use. How Bots See Art describes pieces from the collection from the perspective of a computer; Public Domain Cut-Up creates collages from Met and New York Public Library images; Faces of the Met finds faces in the collection; and Face-Swap The Met does, well, what it sounds like. Although there have been some projects that made Kiser nervous, he said that on the whole, he has been pleased with the early results: “It is heartening to see people taking the data and doing things with it that we didn’t really expect.”
While those tools are fun, the museum has a grander aim: to bring people to the museum and to bring the museum to the people. This may only be possible through the sweet scalability of data.
But the paintings themselves aren’t always small. One floor above the ancient world, the religious, monarchic and political histories of Europe and the United States play out on the walls in gold-leaf frames. It would take a lot of tiny Egyptian scarabs to match the square footage of “Washington Crossing the Delaware” (on a decidedly different mission and river than Meketre). The 1851 work by Emanuel Leutze is one of the museum’s largest pieces.5
FiveThirtyEight: Examining the MET’s painting collection
Despite the scale of these masterpieces, one broad class of paintings has been conspicuously lacking from the museum and continues to be a source of strife. As Calvin Tomkins wrote in The New Yorker last year, in 1934, the Met had no paintings by post-impressionists Paul Gauguin, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Henri Rousseau, Georges Seurat and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. After learning that, Winlock, the Egyptian excavator who had become the museum’s director, wrote to the paintings curator that it was “a great surprise to find that we actually had no paintings by these people” and asked, “Do you not think it would be a good idea if we got some?” The museum got some, but modern and contemporary art has remained stuck in the Met’s craw since.
The museum eventually created a contemporary art department, in 1967, well after most of its rivals, and the Lila Acheson Wallace Wing, its modern art wing, opened in 1987. Tomkins described the paintings there as being shown “to their worst advantage,” and one critic compared the wing (unfavorably, I assume) to an airport in Akron. Plans were hatched for a new $600 million modern wing, but in January, they were delayed indefinitely. The Met also spent millions of dollars to refurbish its new Met Breuer branch, meant to showcase its contemporary side, and spends millions more a year to run it. And in late February, the Met’s director and chief executive, Thomas Campbell, resigned amid concerns about the museum’s financial health. He had been accused of overspending on the new building and on rebranding and of “emphasizing Modern and contemporary art at the expense of core departments,” according to The New York Times.
But back to the data. There does appear to have been an increase in modern and contemporary acquisitions during the past few years. In 2016, for example, the museum sought to fill “one of the more egregious gaps” in its collection, according to Tomkins’s article, by acquiring pieces by the cubists Georges Braque and Fernand Léger, gifts from Leonard Lauder, of the cosmetic Lauders. In 2013, he had promised dozens of cubist artworks to the museum. The excavator’s trowel has become the mascara brush.
One of the reported criticisms of Campbell was that he had put too many resources into the museum’s digital department. Which is ironic, because despite its struggles to adapt to the bleeding edge of the art world, the Met has made at least one truly modern acquisition: the database itself. Data, like modernism, puts the past at a critical distance and catalyzes new approaches and new ways of looking at the canon.
The Met has been searching for a way to keep its two strands growing in the modern era. At what cost is it worth writing a new chapter for the museum by acquiring the objects that have shaped recent history? Perhaps the database holds an answer. When you add a new row to a database, it isn’t alone. It sits alongside hundreds of thousands of other entries, unique but only slightly shifting the whole. The same is true with the objects themselves. The museum could acquire and display pieces incomprehensible to the ancient Greeks: photographs by Ai Weiwei, a video game by Porpentine or even a fragrance installation by Anicka Yi. They’d sit just down the hall — and one click away — from an old-timer like Meketre.