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In March 1939, LIFE magazine celebrated The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York with an eight-page article featuring photographs by the great Alfred Eisenstaedt.
Most of the pictures that Eisenstaedt took at the museum in January of that year, however, never made it into the magazine. Now, in a gallery that includes published and unpublished photos from the shoot, LIFE.com presents a selection of evocative (and sometimes playful) images that offer a virtual tour, of sorts, through one of the world’s great museums, taken at a time in the Met’s history when one could, on a good day, walk through the collections and not be confronted with the jostling crowds that today seem to fill the massive building to bursting every day of the week.
Here, in beautifully stark black and white, are the Egyptian cats and the ornate mummy cases; the Hall of Armor and the Rodin sculptures; the Greek battle tableaux and the quiet, elegant architectural exhibitions — in short, the myriad elements and scenes that have always made a trip to the Met (as LIFE put it in 1939) “as much fun as rummaging through a king’s attic.”