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The Temple of Dendur. (Photograph courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

5 Must-See Pieces at the Met

The next time you visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, you must say hello to “William.”

The small blue statuette has been the museum’s unofficial mascot since he made his debut in 1917. But don’t let his youthful looks fool you; he’s been around for almost four millennia. Today, the ancient Egyptian relic serves as a beloved greeter for millions of museumgoers. You can even purchase your very own William at the gift shop.

The idea for the Met came from a group of Americans in Paris who wanted to bring art and appreciation for the arts stateside. Less than 15 years after it was proposed, in 1880, the museum opened at its current site on Fifth Avenue. The building rules like a king over the Upper East Side, drawing millions of visitors (more than six million last year, 80 percent from outside NYC) to its legendary halls.

It’s always heartwarming to visit my old favorites — the “Panoramic View of the Palace and Gardens of Versailles” and the American Wing with its magnificent “Washington Crossing the Delaware” among them. Plus, it’s a New York City summer must to enjoy a cocktail on the Met’s rooftop while looking out over the tree line of Central Park and the storied apartment buildings nearby.

The Cloisters, the museum’s lesser known branch located in Fort Tryon Park, is also well worth visiting for its stunning collection of Medieval European art and architecture and beautiful outdoor gardens.

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The Buddhist altarpiece stands about 30 inches high. (Photograph courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Being able to visit both branches regularly is one of the perks of living in New York, but it wasn’t until I toured the Met proper with France Pepper that I became infatuated with it. I wanted an expert’s view and Pepper, who has been lecturing in the museum’s galleries for 14 years, delivered in spades. She has the rare ability to elucidate a piece’s elusive energy and meaning, while allowing you to experience it on your own. (My dream is to one day travel with her to Asia through her company, China Insider, which plans high-level cultural travel.)

Here are Pepper’s picks for five can’t-miss experiences in America’s largest art gallery:

1. The Temple of Dendur (Egyptian Galleries, Gallery 131)
The temple, originally built around 15 BC by the Roman governor of Egypt, Petronius, was converted into a Coptic church in the 6th century AD. It was rescued from flooding from the Aswan dam along the Nile River and installed in the museum in 1978.

Why Pepper Loves It: “The extensive relief carvings include Augustus Caesar  dressed as a pharaoh making offerings to Isis. The carvings are in excellent condition and illustrate in detail clothing and rituals from over 2000 years ago. I also get a kick out of the graffiti carved on parts of the temple that date to the 19th century. Regardless of culture, ancient or contemporary, people like to leave their mark!”
Tip: Click through images here to see the graffiti on the Temple of Dendur.

2. Gilded Bronze Buddha Altarpiece (Asian Galleries, Gallery 207)
This altarpiece dedicated to Buddha Maitreya is an example of freestanding art from the Northern Wei Dynasty of China and is thought to date back to 524 AD.

Why Pepper Loves It: “The expression on the Buddha’s face evokes inner peace. The surrounding figures on the altarpiece frame the central Buddha figure in perfect balance, and the celestial musicians, each playing a different instrument, hover on the periphery of the Buddha’s aura.”
Tip: Pepper suggests walking around to the back of the piece to see how the aureole is attached to the Buddha, a demonstration of the high level of craftsmanship that existed at that time in China.

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The term boiserie is derived from the French word for wood. (Photograph courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

3. Boiserie from the Hotel de Varengeville, Paris (Wrightsman Galleries, Gallery 525)
This is a beautiful period room with gilded panels, impressive paintings, finely crafted furniture, and a 15-light chandelier.

Why Pepper Loves It: “The opulence of aristocratic Paris comes alive in this room dated to 1704. As fortunes changed hands, the gilded panel walls and other elements of the room were sold off, and eventually found a new home at the Met. The original architect and owners were all well documented, making it possible to retrace the room’s history.”

4. The Cubiculum Nocturnum (Greek and Roman Wing, Gallery 165)
The walls in this cubiculum nocturnum (bedroom) display beautiful, colorful frescoes from a villa that was buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius on August 24, A.D. 79.

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The Baining people use barkcloth kavat masks in a fire-lit night dance dedicated to the forest. (Photograph courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Why Pepper Loves It: “A natural disaster, the eruption of Vesuvius, destroyed the lives of so many people, yet preserved the spectacular wall paintings in this bedroom. The paintings are over 2000 years old and look like new. It must have been marvelous for the person or persons [who once occupied it] to go to sleep surrounded by such vistas.”

5. Kavat Masks (Oceanic Wing, Gallery 354)
The Baining people of central Papua New Guinea used these masks — which represent comparatively recent history, dating to the early 1970s — exclusively in their night dance ritual.

Why Pepper Loves It: “These seemingly primitive sculptures are so very modern in design. Their function as part of a performance reminds the viewer that even though they may be admired artistically, their true value lies within the experience of a ritual performance accompanied by music and dedicated to the spirit world.”

What are your favorite things to see at the Met? Share them with me and the rest of the Intelligent Travel community by leaving a comment.