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NPR Arts & Life

Metropolitan Museum Of Art Will Reopen This Weekend

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The Metropolitan Museum of Art's main building finally reopens its doors on Saturday in New York City. It has been closed since March, one of the longest closures in the museum's history. But it wasn't just lights out. Marisa Mazria Katz reports.

MARISA MAZRIA KATZ, BYLINE: With its towering colonnades, vaulted ceilings, marble floors and vast domes, the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Great Hall is a neoclassical masterpiece. And on a typical day, it's packed.

CAROLYN RICCARDELLI: There's a lot of hubbub. It's even hard to just meet someone in this space.

MAZRIA KATZ: Carolyn Riccardelli is an objects conservator at the Met. On most days, you'd find her in a ground-floor lab restoring a life-size Renaissance statue or in one of the galleries repairing a limestone mantelpiece. When the museum shut down, most of the staff cleared out.

RICCARDELLI: It's a palpable emptiness.

MAZRIA KATZ: But you can't just walk away from a 2-million-square-foot building like the Met's, so Riccardelli joined a team doing biweekly patrols of the collection.

RICCARDELLI: And this is our standard walk through the museum. We always started downstairs, and we'd come up here, take the great stairs. They're very wide, and we could stay physically distant from each other as we did our patrols.

MAZRIA KATZ: A group of around 30 technicians, conservators and curators inspected objects for cracks, lifting paint and insects, and they looked for leaking pipes.

RICCARDELLI: We did a lot of sweeping with the flashlight back and forth over the object because the galleries are very dark.

MAZRIA KATZ: And then there were jobs she never expected to do.

RICCARDELLI: In the very beginning, security was coming up here and feeding the fish.

MAZRIA KATZ: Koi fish in the 17th century-style Chinese garden pond.

RICCARDELLI: It was something people really enjoyed doing, to come up here and interact with these living creatures inside the museum that curators, conservators - we don't normally interact with these fish. I mean, we know they're here, but we're not the ones taking care of them. So it was a lot of fun, and we kind of got to know them a little bit. They're shy (laughter).

MAZRIA KATZ: Last year, over 7 million people visited the museum. But with tourism down and COVID fears still running high, that number is likely to drop dramatically.

SUHALY BAUTISTA-CAROLINA: And so when we closed our doors, we were really thinking that when we reopened, it would be a whole new audience.

MAZRIA KATZ: Suhaly Bautista-Carolina works in audience development and education at the Met. And she expects that new audience to be primarily from New York. She sees this moment as an opportunity to expand the museum's outreach, including a residency that supports artists working across the city's five boroughs.

BAUTISTA-CAROLINA: We were at this point where we were like, who starts a residency during the quarantine? But we're working with artists who are already - they don't need the museum to do their work. Their work happens in their communities.

MAZRIA KATZ: Those residencies were already underway before the shutdown, as were preparations to open the Met's 150th anniversary exhibition, Making the Met, at the end of March. For director Max Hollein, a visit to the museum may be different now with temperature checks, required masks and timed tickets, but he still sees the power of the collection as a testament to the human spirit.

MAX HOLLEIN: Artworks here in these galleries, some of them 5,000 years old, certainly have seen a lot. They have seen plagues. They have seen wars.

MAZRIA KATZ: And, he says, in this moment of uncertainty, the very meaning of the works has been transformed.

HOLLEIN: I think that this museum shows you that mankind has overcome so many different crises and so many different challenges that, in that sense, art is also a great testimony for this level of resilience and for hope.

MAZRIA KATZ: For NPR News, I'm Marisa Mazria Katz in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE CINEMATIC ORCHESTRA'S "NECROLOGY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.