Issue 05, March 2007
homepage > The Onassis Library at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York
The Onassis Library
at the
Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York

An exceptionally rich collection of twelve thousand books related to Greek and Roman art are at the disposal of the public - researchers, students, and other friends of classical culture – in New York thanks to the generosity of the Onassis Foundation.

by Leda Bouzali


The Onassis Library for Greek and Roman Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art celebrated its sixth year of operations in October 2006.
In November 1996, in keeping with one of its basic founding goals, which is the promotion of Greek culture to the global community, the Foundation decided to finance the construction, equipment, and operation of a specialised library dedicated to Greek-Roman art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York. The 685 m² library commenced operations in 2000 and has welcomed more than 8,000 visitors since then.
The collection’s original core dates back to 1909 when the museum’s Department of Classical Art was first created. It was significantly expanded in 1931 with a donation of books and magazines made by the museum’s second director, Edward Robinson. Over subsequent years, the collection was further enriched through donations made by various lecturers and private individuals, and more recently through a contribution made by a group of friends of the museum department named “Filodori” (“gift givers”). This mass of books was kept in the old offices of the Department of Greek and Roman Art until 2000 when the ultramodern library building was opened. Through financing by the Onassis Foundation, an autonomous library area was built at the museum featuring the appropriate infrastructure and the necessary technological equipment to enable the on-line availability of records. A new library, open to researchers from all corners of the planet, was born.
As explained by Mark Santangelo, the Onassis Library aims to comprise one of the main research centres for the study of Greek-Roman art in the United States. This ambitious vision is being achieved with the help of a policy put forth by its management, namely the gradual expansion of its collections. Today, it hosts approximately twelve thousand specialised volumes covering areas of ancient art and archaeology, like sculpting, ceramics, glassworks, jewellery, murals, as well as the history of the collections. The library also holds six hundred rare books, pieces of early literature, art auction catalogues, and archival material. Users also have access to twenty subscription magazines and other periodic publications, eight thousand off-prints, and electronic files.

Referring to the method used to enrich the library, Mr. Santangelo notes that books are carefully selected not only to serve as support material for the museum’s Greek and Roman exhibits, but also to contribute to the broader study of ancient art. The library’s management is also in continuous contact with book traders on the global scale and, in particular, specialised researchers from the Eastern Mediterranean who track down books that are difficult to find in the States. Using this approach, stresses Mr. Santangelo, the library has managed to create a rich collection of high quality reference work that distinguishes it from similar collections.
The Onassis Library’s rare books collection deserves particular mention. The library is currently the exclusive holder of twelve books in the entire Northern United States.

The rare books collection includes works from the beginning of the 18th and 19th centuries, amongst which are rare French, Italian, and Greek publications. There are also a number of books that have been released in a limited number of copies worldwide, such as Wilhelm Frener’s 1899 work Antiquites, of which the Onassis Library possesses the eleventh of a total of only 25 copies printed.

In December 2001, a significant donation was made to the library by Nancy Ford, who donated her personal collection of 75 rare publications related to ancient travels throughout Greece and the Eastern Mediterranean. This collection included a 1710 copy of the book Amazons which constitutes the Onassis Library’s oldest book.

Another unique element of the rare publications collection are the rare auction catalogues, some of which date back to the first European art auctions held in the 1830s.

Modern books can also be rare, however. The library received a gift from the Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki in the form of an elegant catalogue that, despite being printed in 2004, was released in only 800 copies, making it quite a rare global publication.

“Given that the Onassis Library is the only library in the United States to possess this publication,” states Mr. Santangelo, “it is our honour and pleasure to promote Greek culture by maintaining and showing this volume as part of our collection.

Compared to the large libraries of the world, like the British Museum in London and the National Library in Paris, we are a small library with a limited collection of rare books. We follow, however, a very specific and careful strategy when it comes to gathering our material. I take this opportunity to add that donations of rare books on Greek and Roman art from Greece and Cyprus, which cannot be found in the United States, are always welcome. We track the purchasing of old publications with a view to expanding our collection and, in doing so we have added nine rare books in the last five years.

Possessing such rare publications constitutes a privilege and a great responsibility for us. We are responsible,” concludes Mr. Santangelo, “for maintaining these works for the benefit of humanity, history, and science.”

Among the Onassis Library management’s future plans is the digital maintenance of these rare books so that they can be made available at any given time worldwide and preserved for future generations.

Collecting books is only one of the library’s central fields of activity. It has a mass of information sources in its archives. Countless files of archival material, notes, documents, and correspondence between prominent scientists trace the history of the museum’s Department of Greek and Roman Art, its collections, and the research it has carried out since it was founded. Furthermore, the library recently acquired the records of significant art traders, Piero Tozzi and Dikran Kelekian, and the personal documents of lecturer, Gizela Richter. These are unique documents that it plans to exhibit in the future through digitisation and computer storage.

Amongst significant book, magazine, and archive donors are the Paul Erdos family, the American Academy of Rome, Patricia Stickney, Paul Klaoudatos, Nanette Kelekian, the family of Piero Tozzi, and Nancy Ford, as well as a number of anonymous donors. Thanks to their generosity and the library’s highly trained curators and librarians, the Onassis Library is starting to emerge as one of the most important research centres in North America.

“The Metropolitan Museum of Art has undertaken and is devotedly carrying out the mission of presenting, interpreting, and studying the great classical cultures of Greece and Rome, the artistic tradition of which decisively influenced subsequent Western art and continues to do so today,” stated Metropolitan Museum director Philippe de Montebello before the inauguration of the library. “The Onassis Library will constitute an exceptional supplement to our collections, contributing simultaneously to the growth of the study of Greek-Roman art.  We are grateful to the Onassis Foundation for the support it has provided in creating an infrastructure worthy of this unique material."

On behalf of the Onassis Foundation, memorable president Stelios Papadimitriou had remarked: “this important place will be invaluable for all current and future researchers. We are proud to have contributed to the creation of this extraordinary library.”

The library’s abundant collection constitutes an incentive for numerous researchers from all parts of the world to visit and enjoy the splendour of Greek-Roman art. Since commencing operations, more than eight thousand visitors, lecturers, professors, students, independent researchers, collectors, and art lovers have consulted its archives, and the number of visitors continues to rise by 10% each year.

Along with the expansion of the library and the increase in visitors, there is substantiated hope that the future will not see a decline in the cultivation of interest and the promotion of knowledge regarding Greek-Roman culture.

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