‘Heavenly Bodies’: record-breaking attendance and its momentum for the Met

‘Heavenly Bodies’: record-breaking attendance and its momentum for the Met
Installation view of "Heavenly Bodies" at the Met Fifth Avenue, Medieval Sculpture Hall. Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Nearly a month before its close, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Costume Institute’s blockbuster exhibition ‘Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination’ saw its 1 millionth visitor. The exhibition, spanning the Met’s Fifth Avenue location, the Cloisters, and the museum’s medieval art wing, filled 60,000 square feet throughout 25 galleries. Highlighting the relationship between Catholicism and the fashion industries, more specifically the influence the religion has had on designers, the exhibition stunningly juxtaposed high fashion and extensive tradition.

The exhibition brought together priceless relics from the Vatican Museum to the lavish creations of Alexander McQueen, Versace, and Chanel. The endeavor has received passionate responses, both good and bad, since the Rihanna spiced things up with her take on the Papal robes at the museum’s annual gala.

The museum’s press release brought the grand total to 1.7 million visitors for the exhibitions 10 May to 8 October run. This news crushed the three highest attendance records set by the Met’s 1983 show ‘The Vatican Collections’, 1963 ‘Mona Lisa’, and the long-standing record of the 1978 ‘Treasures of Tutankhamun’ which drew over 1.3 million guests.

The incredible success of ‘Heavenly Bodies’ comes at a crucial turning point for the museum which has seen a tumultuous year between the museum setting in place a controversial admission charge to the exit of museum director, Thomas Campbell. Feeding off the momentum of this exhibition and the success of ‘Michelangeo: Divine Draftsman and Designer’ (which ran from November 2017 through February 2018), the naming of a new director, Max Hollein, and the impending withdrawal from the Marcel Breuer-designed brutalist building three years earlier than the expected date, it seems the Met could be in the midst of an invaluable evolution.

The encyclopedic museum is working to navigate the modernization of a museum in the 21st century through incorporating new and old in a thoughtful and interesting manner while competing with so many other attractions the city has to boast. The record setting attendance of ‘Heavenly Bodies’, though, could be a selling point but the $25 entry fee for non-New Yorkers might deter visitors when the exhibitions do not prove as enticing as the ornate, over the top, at times even fetish-like installations that have graced the galleries over the past five months.

Preparations for the next landmark Costume Institute show is already underway when just two days after the end of ‘Heavenly Bodies’ it was announced that the next exhibition would look at Camp Fashion which found inspiration in Susan Sontag’s Notes on Camp. Though any organization would like to do better all the time, the chances of the next show topping this year’s is slim. However, the coat tails of this year’s exhibitions could prove to be very long. Perhaps the success of this year’s focus on the relationship between the sacred and profane will point the museum in a direction that allows for a continuation of the collaboration between new and old.