“The Met Goes Primitive”: Postwar America, Cultural Politics, and the Creation of the Rockefeller Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art


ACLS Fellowship Program




Museums are known to be important sites for shaping and disseminating knowledge, including ideas about national identity, heritage, and the representation of cultural difference. This project argues that the history of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s decision in 1969 to collect and display what was then called “primitive art” illuminates the relationship between art and post-World War II, postcolonial politics, twentieth-century American cosmopolitanism, and a changing ideology of a more racially diverse national identity. Using the papers of Nelson Rockefeller, René d’Harnoncourt, and other key individuals, museum archives, and interviews, “The Met Goes Primitive” analyzes the social, political, and cultural context in which the Met’s board of trustees made the decision to institutionalize the collection of non-Western tribal artifacts, thus including these objects as part of the museum’s canon of world art, and the historical as well as the contemporary significance of this decision.