A Little Happier: Two Staircases in the Metropolitan Museum Illustrate a Profound Truth

In writing my book Life in Five Senses, I did many experiments, went on many adventures, and did a lot of research. One of my most ambitious exercises was to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art every day for a year. I decided to do it for a year, but I’ve never stopped. I still go every day!

I love these visits. Among other things, when I started making them, I was curious to see how the Met would change over time, as it became more and more familiar to me. It has been an absolutely fascinating study.

As you’d expect, after so many visits, I started to notice things that had previously escaped my attention.

One odd thing I noticed recently had to do with stairways.

When I come into the Met, if I want to go to the second floor, right by the entrance I use are two stairways very close to each other. They’re separated by just a few galleries, and both go from the first floor to the second floor.

What I started to notice, and what surprised me, is that one of the stairways took much more effort to climb.

Was this my imagination?

In visit after visit, I’d climb one staircase or the other, to compare my experience. Yep, it was definitely true that the staircase that goes by the Greek and Roman Study Collection mezzanine and ends up just outside the entrance to the Later South Asia gallery took more energy to climb than the staircase that led from behind the Greek and Roman Art galleries to one side of the 19th century European Paintings and Sculpture Gallery.


I compared the two. Was it the material underfoot? No, they were both made from stone. Was it the number of flights and landings? Nope, both staircases contained four flights of stairs separated by three landings. Was it the surroundings? No. The difficult staircase was much more interesting than the easier staircase, because it went by a mezzanine gallery, so if anything, that factor would cut the other way.

Finally, I thought to measure the height of each step. I brought in a ruler. I discovered that with the more taxing staircase, for just the first two of the four individual flights, the steps were slightly higher than for the second two flights, and higher than all of the steps of the easier staircase.

That subtle difference didn’t effect the entire experience, and it certainly took me a long time to notice, yet it made climbing the staircase noticeably more arduous.

This observation underscored a truth that I already know: The same experience can be drastically changed by design, and even a very subtle difference can have a dramatic consequence.

We may be making the same climb, but our journey can be very different, depending on the staircase we’re on.




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