Secrets Hidden Within the Met

Bet you didn’t know NYC’s most famous museum held so many secrets within.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

About seven million people visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art over the past year. Search for the museum on Google and nearly 60,000 results turn up. So it’s amazing to think there is anything not known about one of the most famous buildings in the world—and what’s inside it. And yet! There are still plenty of magical surprises to be found. As we enter peak Met season, we’ve rounded up five of our favorite museum secrets. Take a look before your next visit.

The Met has a residential flower master.

You might not normally think there is much of a connection between the decidedly uncolorful Reader’s Digest magazine and perhaps the most beautifully explosive flower designs in all of New York City. But ever since the magazine’s cofounder, Lila Acheson Wallace, gave the Met an endowment in 1969, the buoyant bouquets have been one of the most visually arresting elements greeting visitors in the museum’s Great Hall. Wallace was a Met trustee in possession of a mighty green thumb, and her endowment was meant to bring lush beauty to a most important space within the museum. A Dutch-born man named Remco van Vliet is currently the master gardener responsible for constructing designs from some 200 plant branches, each one soaring about eight to 10 feet in the air. Van Vliet studied for the Met gig for six years at the elbow of the previous floral arranger, Chris Giftos, who worked at the museum for 33 years. To make his perfumed magic, Van Vliet takes daily trips to many of NYC’s bustling flower markets, where he’s well-known and liked, in search of sturdy imports like Puerto Rico’s pink heliconia and snowballs from Holland. Then it’s back to the Met, up a ladder with clippers in hand, and down to work filling a two-foot-tall vase. So next time you walk the Great Hall, take a moment to soak up the radiance from at least one unframed creation.

met museum of art
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The Met’s facade is not a complete masterpiece.

While most of the art inside the museum was finished long ago, some creative work on the outside of the Met isn’t done—and may never be completed. How’s that? When architect Richard Morris Hunt was overseeing the construction of the museum in the late 19th century, his original blueprints included 31 sculptures as part of the large pyramids above the iconic pillars you see as you approach the main entrance. Unfortunately, Hunt died before the sculptures were built, and he didn’t leave instructions for what the sculptures should look like. Postmortem, his son, Richard Howland Hunt, took up the cause and proposed topping the pyramids with statues evoking four major moments in the history of art: ancient, classic, Renaissance, and modern. The Met’s trustees, however, wouldn’t fork over the cash to execute that idea, and the pyramids were left as they were. And as they remain today. Chalk this up as a secret hiding in plain sight to anyone standing in front of the magnificent building.

Some of the most famous Tiffany lamps were not designed by Tiffany.

The catalog copy for the muesum’s iconic water lily lamp notes that it is “one of Tiffany’s most successfully executed designs for his firm’s well-known leaded-glass products.” Much of that sentence is true: In the early 20th century, Louis Comfort Tiffany’s studio was indeed famous for cranking out many of the world’s most beloved and ornate glasswork. But thanks, in part, to a 2007 exhibition at the New-York Historical Society, we know that it was not Tiffany himself who designed the Art Nouveau masterpiece. Instead, the design sprung from the creative brain of Clara Driscoll, one of the women collectively known as the Tiffany Girls, hired when the men’s Glass Cutters Union went on strike. “I think Tiffany would have died” if people knew that Driscoll designed the water lily lamp and other famous pieces, Martin Eidelberg, professor emeritus of art history at Rutgers University, once told The New York Times. Perhaps that explains why it took so long for Driscoll to emerge as the true genius behind certain pieces. A tough, smart, and determined woman, Driscoll overcame her father’s death when she was only 12 years old and studied at a Cleveland design academy before attending the Metropolitan Museum Art School. In 1888 she went to work for Tiffany and remained there for two decades. Which, as it turns out, was plenty of time to dream up lamps that are among the most beautiful objects in the Met’s collection.

The Met’s “mascot” was born in 1917.

You’ve almost certainly seen the blue hippo that serves as the de facto museum mascot. While I saw way too many small reproductions of the Egyptian sculpture when I worked at the then newly opened Met Store in Los Angeles many moons ago, the hippo, known as William, was one of the biggest sellers at the shop. As popular as the cute creature is, ask the average Met fan if he or she knows much about William’s past—it’s entirely possible all you’ll get is a blank stare. William came to the museum in 1917, one of several pieces that arrived as part of the tomb known as The Steward, Senbi, dating back to around 1900 B.C., from which he was pulled with three of his legs missing (they were likely cut off so that he wouldn’t be a threat to Senbi in the afterlife).

His name, as the legend goes, came from a captain named H.M. Raleigh, who owned a photograph of the hippopotamus. Raleigh wrote an article about the hippo in 1931 for a magazine called Punch, revealing in the piece that he and his family called him William. The name stuck and was soon adopted by the Met itself. The museum began creating and selling those reproductions in the 1950s, boosting William’s profile considerably. If you want to see the original William, head to Gallery 111. There the famous blue animal is still hanging out with his companions from Senbi’s tomb.

It houses an ancient Roman ruler’s tribute to his secret lover.

Emperor Hadrian ruled Rome from 117 to 138 AD. Which is to say: Dude is old. He did some remarkable things in his time, including rebuilding a little stack of bricks called the Pantheon. On the personal front, Hadrian was wildly in love with one of his male servants, a young Greek hottie named Antinous. The pair reportedly spent all their time together in what was a seemingly hot and heavy romance. When Antinous met an unfortunate and early end—he drowned in the Nile when he was 19—Hadrian was devastated. He declared his deceased lover a god, commissioned more than 100 sculptures and busts of him, and even erected an entire city—Antinopolis—in his honor. Hadrian’s devotion put Antinous up there with the Caesars Julius and Augustus and, yes, Hadrian himself as one of the most rendered people from the Classical era. Gaze upon the god’s visage in Gallery 162…maybe you’ll fall in love, too.