Collection ID: Archives.Breck.1

Collection context


Joseph Breck (1885–1933) served The Metropolitan Museum of Art as Assistant Curator in the Department of Decorative Arts (1909-1914), Curator of the Department of Decorative Arts (1917-1933), Assistant Director of the Museum (1917-1933) and Director of The Cloisters (1932-1933). He was closely involved with the original building plans and collection arrangement for The Cloisters. Breck was associated with numerous exhibitions, most notably the Industrial Arts Exhibitions (1918-1929). Breck was responsible for many acquisitions primarily in the field of Decorative Arts. A prolific writer, he is credited with over 200 scholarly papers, pamphlets, publications, and lectures in the fields of textiles, sculpture, furniture, as well as exhibition planning, display techniques and presentation. The Joseph Breck Records document his numerous roles within The Metropolitan Museum of Art and includes correspondence and inter-office memos with museum staff, correspondence with collectors, dealers and lenders of objects; article drafts, reports, pamphlets, catalogs and other published materials.
11.0 Linear feet
Preferred citation:

[Title of item], [date of item], Box [number], Folder [number], Joseph Breck Records, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Archives.


Scope and Content:

The Joseph Breck Records primarily contain materials generated by Breck in his capacity as head of the Department of Decorative Arts and as the Assistant Director of the Museum. Also present are records created by other members of the Department of Decorative Arts, including the assistant curator Meyrick R. Rogers and Preston Remington who briefly took over after Breck's death in 1933. The collection is composed of correspondence and inter-office memos with museum staff, including Director Edward Robinson and Secretary H. W. Kent; correspondence with collectors, dealers and lenders of objects; article drafts, reports, pamphlets, catalogs and other published material; requests for positions; artwork acquisition "Blanks" which report on objects newly acquired by the Museum; object descriptions and photographs of objects.

Biographical / Historical:

Joseph Breck was born in Massachusetts in 1885. He attended Harvard where he majored in Art History and where he also met and formed a life-long friendship with Herbert Winlock, who later became curator and Director of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Breck wrote for theHarvard Lampoonwhere his contributions revealed an interest in art. After graduation he traveled to Europe continuing his studies in art with specific interest in the Renaissance and sculpture. Upon returning to Harvard for graduate studies, Breck was encouraged by Winlock to join the Metropolitan Museum. In 1909 he was hired as Assistant Curator to Wilhelm Valentiner of the Department of Decorative Arts. At this time this department encompassed a large collection of objects drawn from a wide-ranging time period and cultures of origin.

In 1914, Valentiner left for his native Germany to fight in World War I, and Breck was promoted to head the department. Soon after he was appointed Director of the recently established Minneapolis Institute of Art. He returned to the Metropolitan in 1917 as the Curator of the Decorative Arts department and Assistant Director of the Museum. The collections and scope of the the Decorative Arts department so greatly expanded that after Breck’s death in 1933 it was broken into three departments: Renaissance and Modern Art, Medieval Art, and the American Wing. (Miller, p.21, Howe pp. 62-63)

In 1932, Joseph Breck was named the first director of the new branch of the Metropolitan Museum, The Cloisters. Though he never lived to see the building completed, Breck was passionate about The Cloisters, and worked intensely on the arrangement of its collections as well as the planning of the structure itself. In his obituary inThe New York Timesit was pointed out that he took it upon himself to make “a study of further manuscripts and tapestries to find out what flowers were illustrated in Medieval times so that the new Cloisters’ garden might reflect the Medieval spirit." (NYT 8/3/33)

Joseph Breck had a firm understanding and appreciation for not only design but how objects should be displayed. In 1912 at a meeting of the American Association of Museums held at the Metropolitan Museum, Breck, Museum Secretary Henry W. Kent and curator Durr Friedley set up cases and created displays demonstrating two methods: “good” and “bad”. These installation guidelines which featured less crowding, good light, clear lines and glass display cases with muted backgrounds, became the standard for art museum installation. Breck wrote extensively on display and installation with the “purpose of benefitting both historical and visitor point of view.” (Howe p. 138)

Breck was associated with many exhibitions at the Museum. Most notably he was involved, along with Richard F. Bach, in the popular Industrial Arts Exhibitions. His philosophy was that by showing the public well-designed, everyday objects – chairs, tables, curtains – "good taste" could be taught. He stated that these “touch a person more nearly and while a person may not be able to afford a good picture, that it is possible to purchase a good lamp by seeing these examples.” (Miller, p.18)

Though somewhat conservative in his taste, Breck displayed for the first time at the Metropolitan examples of Art Deco and Art Nouveau objects. Acquisitions are among a curator's lasting legacies and Joseph Breck’s were considered “remarkably fine” (Miller, p. 14, 18).

Breck wrote more than 200 articles covering the fields of Renaissance art and sculpture, design of objects, and display and installation techniques. He was the author of catalogues for those subjects as well as on individual artists (Rodin), exhibitions (the Swedish exhibition) and collections (J.P. Morgan & Ballard handbooks). He was also a frequent contributor to The Metropolitan Museum of ArtBulletin.

In the summer of 1933, while on a buying trip for the Museum, Joseph Breck died suddenly of a heart attack, at the age of 48. Shortly before his death, he had been awarded the Legion d’Honneur for his work in the arts.

Considered by some to be a disciplinarian and rather tactless in his manner, Joseph Breck was by-passed by the Trustees for the position of Director of the Metropolitan when it became vacant in 1931. The job went, instead, to his old friend Herbert Winlock (1931-1939). Museum President William Sloane Coffin wrote that Joseph Breck’s influence and taste was felt in all parts of the Museum. “The Morgan Wing, the galleries on the second floor of Wings K and J, the galleries of medieval and Renaissance decorative arts, The Cloisters, and more recently the new hall of medieval tapestries are a standing testimony to his taste and knowledge in installation and arrangement.” (Bulletin, 1933, p.147)

Works Consulted

Howe, W. E.A History of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1905 – 1941. New York: Published for the Metropolitan Museum by Columbia University Press, 1946. Vol. II

Miller, Craig.Modern Design in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1890-1990. New York: Harry N. Abrams Publishers, 1990.

Tomkins, Calvin.Merchants and Masterpieces: The Story of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1989. Revised and updated edition.

Various issues of The Metropolitan Museum of ArtBulletin.

Custodial history:

Transfered to the Museum Archives from the European Sculpture and Decorative Arts department on January 20, 2012.

Processing information:

Collection processed by Karol Pick, Archives Volunteer, in November 2012. Finding aid created by Aleksandr Gelfand.


The Joseph Breck Records consist of a single series arranged alphabetically by corporate name, personal name or subject. When received by Archives, they were arranged chronologically and alphabetically within a calendar year.

Rules or conventions:
Describing Archives: A Content Standard



Collection is open for research.


Consult archives staff regarding permission to quote or reproduce.


[Title of item], [date of item], Box [number], Folder [number], Joseph Breck Records, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Archives.

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