The Met’s ‘Heavenly Bodies’ Is the Most Popular Show in the Museum’s History, Drawing 1.7 Million Visitors

The Catholic fashion exhibition smashed a 40-year-old record previously held by King Tut.

Gallery view, Cuxa Cloister. Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Gallery view of "Heavenly Bodies" at the Cloisters, Cuxa Cloister. Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art has crunched the numbers and found that its Costume Institute blockbusterHeavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination,” which closed earlier this week, is officially the museum’s most popular exhibition of all time. An astounding 1,659,647 visitors made the pilgrimage to the Met Fifth Avenue and the Met Cloisters to see the show during its run between May 10 and October 8, breaking a 40-year record.

The astronomical number doesn’t come as too much of a surprise: In August, the museum announced that the show had just hit the 1 million visitor threshold. At that point, it had already become the most-attended Costume Institute show of all time, and had eclipsed attendance numbers for the hit 1983 show “The Vatican Collections,” previously the third-most visited show in Met history.

Now that the visitor totals have been tallied for the exhibition’s full run, it has officially surpassed attendance figures for the museums’ second most-popular show, 1963’s “Mona Lisa,” and its all-time number one, “Treasures of Tutankhamun,” which welcomed 1,360,957 guests back in 1978.

The exhibition’s potent mix of fashion from the likes of Chanel, Alexander McQueen, and Versace with real Papal treasures from Vatican City was boosted by press coverage of the Costume Institute’s star-studded Met Gala, which saw Rihanna dress as a sexy pope. But there’s also a more practical reason for the show’s attendance success. Spanning 60,000 square feet in 25 galleries over the two museum locations, “Heavenly Bodies” is also the Met’s largest exhibition, spatially, of all time.

Riccardo Tisci, Statuary Vestment for the Madonna Delle Grazie, on view in

Riccardo Tisci, Statuary Vestment for the Madonna Delle Grazie, on view in “Heavenly Bodies” at the Met Fifth Avenue, European Gallery. Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The process of calculating attendance for “Heavenly Bodies” was slightly complicated since the exhibition was spread across multiple galleries at the Met’s Fifth Avenue location and the Cloisters. A spokesperson for the Met said its research department “developed methodology based on attendance counts and extensive visitor surveys to determine unique visits to the exhibition.”

Each of the 228,737 visitors to the Met Cloisters during the exhibition’s run count toward its overall total, plus the 1.43 million guests at the main venue, where the show was scattered throughout the medieval galleries, the galleries for Byzantine art, the Anna Wintour Costume Center, and part of the Robert Lehman Wing (that section closed September 9).

It was a banner year for the Met overall, having had its most successful fiscal year ever, attendance-wise—despite a controversial increase in admission price for non-New Yorkers. Between the Cloisters, the Met Breuer, and the institution’s flagship, more than 7.35 million visitors passed through the Met doors between July 1, 2017, and June 30, 2018. The numbers saw a boost not only from the opening months of “Heavenly Bodies,” but also from the hitMichelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer” (November 13, 2017–February 12, 2018), the 10th-most popular show in museum history with over 700,000 visitors.

The Costume Institute is already getting ready for its follow-up outing, a planned ode to camp fashion and Susan Sontag, which will open next May.


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