Historic Places · Museums

A Review of the Morgan Library & Museum

Morgan Library & Museum original library
The original library has three floors of books, gorgeous woodwork, and ceiling frescos to rival many great Renaissance palazzos.

The Morgan Library & Museum is a great, small museum in Midtown Manhattan with a collection of small treasures. Its was established by the famous industrialist and collector Pierpont Morgan (1837-1913), who collected rare books, manuscripts, works on paper, and small antiquities throughout his life. In 1902, he hired the celebrated architect Charles McKim to built him a gorgeous, beaux-arts library to house it all. After Morgan’s death, his son made it a public museum. I believe that the collection is still growing. The museum got a large expansion in 2006 by architect Renzo Piano. Now, the museum is part modern exhibition galleries and part Gilded Age library. You can learn more about the history of the Morgan and its architecture on the museum’s website.

Morgan Library & Museum book vault
Pierpont Morgan’s book vault, where he kept the most valuable manuscripts.

The Morgan Library is open every day of the week except Monday (but there are some hours that you can only get into the historic portion). Admission costs $20 for adults, $13 for students and seniors, free ages 12 and under with an adult. The museum has a well-stocked bookstore, café, and dining room.

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Staff area Morgan Library & Museum
The staff area – off limits but still gorgeous.
What I Liked About It
  • The Morgan has cool treasures that you might not pay much attention to elsewhere. Because they’re small, they would get lost in many other museums, but they’re rightfully given places of prominence here.
  • Manuscripts! I love illuminated manuscripts, and the Morgan has a ton of them.
  • It also has a excellent collection of ancient Mesopotamian cylinder seals. These are small pieces of hard stone carved  in reverse, so they create patterns when rolled over soft clay. They were used like signatures in the ancient world. Each seal at the Morgan appears next to a photo of the impression they create in the clay. Other small antiquities, including ancient jewelry, appeared in the same gallery. I’m not sure if this is a permanent display or not.
  • The museum has a fabulous collection of medieval treasure bindings particularly loved by Pierpont Morgan. Treasure bindings are elaborate gold and jewel-encrusted book bindings. The ninth-century Lindau Gospels is one of the most famous examples in the world… and I got to see it up close here! In addition to the vast amount of bling on this covers, the delicate metalwork is spectacular. Unfortunately, this exhibition will probably have closed by the time I post this.
  • Other special exhibitions on view during my visit showed a collection of master drawings and documents relating to Charles Dickens and his speaking tours.
  • The museum preserves Morgan’s original, Charles McKim-designed library. You can walk through Morgan’s study, the book vault, the original library, the librarian’s office, and the rotunda. These are spectacular! I could spend hours inside the original library. I also particularly loved the book vault and the frescoed ceiling of the rotunda. These period rooms were absolutely the highlight of my visit. The only thing that disappointed me was the fact that the merging of old and new structures takes away much of the sense that you’re in a real historic building, not just transplanted period rooms.
Things to Keep in Mind if You Go

The Morgan requires patience. It mostly displays small works, which you need to look very closely at to appreciate. The museum has very few obvious show-stoppers or big-name pieces. That’s not to say that its collection isn’t world class, because it absolutely is. I mean that its significance isn’t always immediately apparent. Books, drawings, and tiny antiquities don’t give up their best features to brief glances. The museum is relatively small, but plan to spend a few hours so you really have time to look at everything. I would also advise you to pay as much attention to your surroundings in the period rooms as you do to the objects on display there. You won’t regret it!

Berthold Sacramentary Morgan Library & Museum
Treasure binding of the Berthold Sacramentary, a thirteenth-century German manuscript.

The Morgan Library & Museum is a good choice for intermediate to advanced museum-goers. However, don’t let that discourage you if you’re a beginner and want to visit! Just remember to take your time, have the patience to really look at things, and read the excellent labels for context.

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4 thoughts on “A Review of the Morgan Library & Museum

  1. Thanks for this look at a place I’d keenly like to visit (sharing your enthusiasm of old libraries). This is a belated thank you for following Under Western Skies. I look forward to seeing more of your site, and learning something about all the gargoyles I’ve seen, without knowing a great deal about the story behind them. Cheers.

    1. Thank you so much for stopping by! I’m glad you’re enjoying my writing. I hope I’ll have the chance to explore more old libraries soon, and I’ll be sure to post all about it here and on Instagram.

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