Exploring the Empty Met

A photographer’s dream: a peacefully quiet solo trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


As I walked up the staircase, the hallway echoes loudly with each step I take.

Celia Tewey, Exposures Editor

Anyone who has ever been to the Metropolitan Museum of Art on a weekend will know it’s a brag-worthy achievement to even get a glimpse at something without getting shoved, pushed and rushed out of the way. For a photographer, it is next to impossible to get a single picture without 10 curious tourists in the background, trying (and failing) to duck out of the way. The Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York City is the largest art museum in the United States, with its roots dating back to 1860s Paris. Thousands of people visit the Met every day to see masterpieces by artists such as Edgar Degas, Van Gogh, O’Keeffe, Monet, Warhol and countless others. With 7.35 million visitors to its three locations in 2018 alone, it was the third most visited art museum in the world.

I had the privilege of visiting the museum on an early Saturday morning at 7 a.m. this past January. A hashtag on Instagram, #EmptyMet, informed me of a three-hour window of private guided walkthroughs before the museum opens at 10 a.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. The tours allow for photographers, art geeks, historians and everyone in between to access a completely private, open and spacious Met for a few quiet hours. As a photographer, having the opportunity to photograph these empty halls, the lonely statues and the soaring ceilings all by myself was a wonder. Even the Grand Steps out front on 82nd Street were empty.

My tour began in the Great Hall, first traveling up the interior staircase entering into the enclosed American sculpture garden and seeing the Neoclassical facade of the Branch Bank of the United States, which was originally located on Wall Street.

The American Sculpture Wing presents the Museum’s unsurpassed collection of American monumental sculpture, architectural elements and stained glass. The north end of the open hall is anchored by the Neoclassical facade of the Branch Bank of the United States, which was originally located on Wall Street.
As I walked up the staircase, the hallway echoes loudly with each step I take.
Ever since its establishment in 1870, the Museum has acquired an immense collection of American art. This enclosed sculpture court was added in 1980.

Next, into the Greek and Roman art hall. The department exhibits 6th century sculptures of Greek and pre-Roman art. The sculptures are all of humans, immensely detailed right down to the wrinkles on each finger. This was something I had never stopped to look at before this trip.

In the center of the gallery, large-scale Roman-era marble sculptures sit on display. These were originally made with bronze in Greece during the fourth and fifth centuries, but were lost or melted down over time.
Seeing the Met empty like this is a magical and grounding experience: you are literally surrounded by some of the greatest works of art we’ve ever collected as a species. The Greek Hall exhibits some of the most incredible human anatomy sculptures ever made.
Shadows loom as sunlight pours into the Hall of Ancient Greece.

Then, I went onto the Sackler Wing hall to see Egyptian Art, specifically the Temple of Dendur. The temple stands tall and alone inside the large gala space in the Met and was given as a gift in 1967. 

Dating back to the time of Augustus Caesar in 15 B.C.E, the Temple stands tall in the sky-lit window room on the first floor of the Met, viewable to the public at all hours.

The rest of my time on my tour was spent viewing the paintings, specifically in the European Paintings section, where I got to see work by Van Gogh, Géricault, Monet and Degas. 

Far in the back of the European wing hung “Evening: Landscape with an Aqueduct,” painted in 1818 with oil on canvas by Théodore Géricault. The Met collection represents more than 5,000 years of art from across the globe with almost 13,000 pieces.

The tour allowed me to navigate the museum and see these famous pieces and photograph them in their entirety at whatever angles I pleased. Because of this, I was free to roam the halls and felt the urge to take a lot of wide-angle photos of the space. I had visited the Met before, but only in these conditions did I realize how large the actual interior of the museum is. It was a wonder and an almost eerie feeling to be alone amongst so much history. I was free to walk at my own pace. This meant a lot to me. I don’t like to be rushed in museums, and I really felt like the museum was mine for that short amount of time that morning. It was so quiet, you could hear a pin drop. This was something that would never happen on a normal day at the Met. 

Within 20 minutes of the Met’s public opening at 10 a.m., crowds flooded the entrance hall, the gift shop, the bathrooms and the coat check. The contrast is jarring. It is mesmerizing to stand alone in a place that so many people flock to every day, whether they are New York residents, commuters or tourists.

A version of this article appears in the Monday, Feb. 10 2020, print edition. Email Celia Tewey at [email protected].