Founded in 1870, the Metropolitan Museum first acquired works of Chinese art in 1879 and established a separate Department of Asian Art in 1915. From the outset, private collectors—including J. Pierpont Morgan, Benjamin Altman, Louisine Havemeyer, the Rockefeller family, Douglas Dillon, and Brooke Astor—have played a vital role in building the museum’s collections. Today, galleries devoted to Chinese art occupy some 38,000 square feet, with specialized spaces featuring the history and influence of Chinese ceramics; Buddhist sculpture dating from the 5th through the 18th century; Neolithic pottery and jades; Bronze Age ritual vessels, weapons, and decorative arts; and metalwork, pottery, lacquer, and stone sculpture dating from the Han through the Tang dynasty (221 BCE–10th century CE). Eight galleries are devoted to a rotating presentation of one of the finest collections of painting and calligraphy outside China, with works ranging in date from the 8th to the 21st century. Four galleries feature later decorative arts, including rotating selections from the museum’s extensive collections of textiles, lacquerware, metalwork, ivory, bamboo, and jade and other gemstones. At the center of the painting galleries is the Astor Court, a 17th-century-style garden courtyard and reception hall built using traditional methods by a team of Chinese craftsmen and modeled after a courtyard in a domestic residence in Suzhou, a city famous for its gardens. The hall houses the museum’s collection of late Ming dynasty hardwood furniture.
The Asian Department supports exhibitions, publications, and research on and care for its collections with a professional staff of eleven curatorial specialists, two conservators in East Asian painting, an active program of visiting scholars, and four collections managers. At their disposal are a state-of-the-art study-storage facility, seminar room, and library, in addition to the main museum library and conservation departments specializing in objects, textiles, costumes, works on paper, photography, and scientific research. Thanks to these resources, the museum provides an encyclopedic introduction to the artistic and cultural traditions of China.