The Metropolitan Museum of Art is to New York (The Met) what the Musee d’Orsay is to Paris, and the Hermitage is to St Petersburg. That is, an outstanding big-city museum that’s too large to explore in one day, filled with fascinating exhibits, awe-inspiring artifacts and archaeological collections.
Abutting Central Park by Fifth Avenue and 82nd Street, the Met is located in my extended backyard. After a visit, I’m always inspired, whether by the Impressionist works of Monet, the Egyptian artifacts, or the pre-Columbian gold. The get that giddy feeling that makes me want to travel.
On the flipside, I find too much inspiration overwhelming. When this happens, I take pause in Ming Scholar’s Retreat, or what I call — the secret garden.
Well hidden between the Asian Galleries on the second floor, the garden is accessed through an moon gate crowned by a plaque — tanyou — that translates to In Search of Quietude. Only a handful of people are here at any one time, which makes you feel as if you’re the recipient of a golden ticket.
Formally called Astor Court (after its visionary and founding supporter Brooke Russell Astor), the garden is modeled “on a small courtyard within a scholar’s garden in the city of Suzhou, China, called Wang Shi Yuan, the Garden of the Master of the Fishing Nets.” I don’t know if anyone comes here to study or write, but the space allows for quiet contemplation, and functions as a place to sit down and rest the weary feet.
Influenced by the Ming Dynasty style and Yin-Yang principle, the garden courtyard was completed in 1980 and “assembled by expert craftsmen from China using traditional methods, materials and hand tools”.
Having a skylight for a roof means you could see the moon if you were here late enough. Which wouldn’t have been such a crazy idea, especially given this evening’s lunar eclipse.
In the middle of to the terrace stands a doorway with a plaque — yashi — that translates to Elegant Respose. The surrounding windows are covered with wooden latticeworks through which one can see bamboo and grasses, as if to show what the landscape would have looked like. A sheltered walkway along the perimeter of the the garden functions as a place to sit.
The hushed surroundings soak up the rushhhh of the Koi pond’s waterfall, surrounded by dark grey Ying limestone and eroded rocks sourced from the bottom of Lake Tai (China).
In the Ming Dynasty, such a terrace would be used for poetry readings and tea ceremonies. (Side note: If only they’d serve tea here, as they serve wine on the museum’s Great Hall balcony!)
Located directly off the terrace is the Ming Room, also known as the Scholar’s Retreat, whose structure is made from imported Chinese wood: ginko and camphor were used for the latticed doors; fir for the ceiling beams; nan wood – an evergreen prized for its durability and soothing honey colour for the pillars. Decorative ornaments include a blue Meiping vase, pewter candlesticks, and a turquoise and aubergine glazed porcelain God.
Astor Court is as much a gallery as the other parts of the museum. And yet, it is not a crowded. Although I have written about it here, I hope this spot stays a secret.