Ms. Wagstaff oversees the Met Breuer, the museum’s branch on Madison Avenue and, in a telephone interview, she described her programming there as “consciously transhistorical,” a term she said she started using about six years ago.
“With a blending of history and contemporary art, we can reveal some of the puzzles at the centers of great art,” she said.
The Breuer’s 2016 exhibition “Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible” presented incomplete paintings through the ages, from Titian to Lucian Freud, Gerhard Richter and Bruce Nauman. She followed up with “Like Life: Sculpture, Color and the Body (1300-Now),” on view until July 22, which takes a nonchronological look at 700 years of sculptures of the human body.
Including not only fine art but also wax effigies and anatomical models, the show opens with a hyperrealistic sculpture by Duane Hanson from 1984, jumps from a 15th-century Donatello sculpture to a Spanish Renaissance work by El Greco, and juxtaposes a modern android with a 19th-century effigy of Jeremy Bentham, made with the British philosopher’s bones.
“The idea with this show was to open it up and to expand the canon more, with work that could be seen in a more populist way,” Ms. Wagstaff said.
Suzanne Sanders, an art historian in Amsterdam, who organized conferences on “The Transhistorical Museum” in 2015 and 2016, calls transhistorical curating “the most urgent thing curators are doing in trying to reinvent the museum to create some sort of new paradigm.”
“It can be ‘trans’ in all these senses of the word,” she explained, “from across history, to transdisciplinary or queer, or just to represent things in an inclusive way, to find a balance between acknowledging and addressing points of view.”
But James Bradburne, director of the Brera Art Gallery in Milan, said the trend was just a new term for what curators have always done: “Try and bring people back to the moment when the art was contemporary.”
“We are always obliged to re-perform the art we have in our collections in a contemporary way,” he said, “just as an actor, when they perform Shakespeare, has to re-perform it for a contemporary audience, whether in mafia costumes or in drag.”
A year ago, M, a museum in Leuven, Belgium, rehung its permanent collection as “Collection M: The Power of Images,” presenting new comparisons, such as a 14th-century Pietà alongside a 16th-century Baroque painting and a conceptual art installation from 2009.
“We wanted to get out of this time-chain approach,” its director, Eva Wittocx, said by telephone. “Even people who know these works for a long time can find new meanings or new ways of looking at them.”
The Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, whose permanent collection features art from Ancient Egypt to 1800, borrowed 22 works of contemporary art for “The Shape of Time,” which runs through July 8. A nude covering herself partly with a fur coat, by the Flemish master Peter Paul Rubens in 1636-38, for example, is presented alongside a full-frontal nude portrait from the early 1970s by the Austrian artist Maria Lassnig.
“I’d like to think that we are teasing out all of the ideas and concerns and dreams and nightmares that are buried in all of the historical works that we have,” said Jasper Sharp, who curates the museum’s program for modern and contemporary art. But he added that the curators spent a few years trying to figure out “what types of confrontations would be interesting, respectful,” he said.
Pairing Édouard Manet with Diego Velázquez, or bringing a Titian into conversation with a J.M.W. Turner seemed to work, he said, because “these are very well-documented admirations of younger artists looking at older artists.”
But other choices proved riskier. Scores of art lovers responded on Instagram to the museum’s juxtaposition of a Rembrandt self-portrait next to a Mark Rothko color field painting. “Half of them were saying ‘this is absolutely abysmal,’ or ‘Rembrandt must be turning in his grave,’” Mr. Sharp said. “Some of the connections knit together instantly; others reward more sustained looking.”
Ms. Demeester of the Frans Hals Museum pointed out that the history of art is cacophonous in its connections and influences — with “people talking to each other in salons and cafes and messing things up.”
“In creating more meaning and new stories for an audience, it’s important as a museum to think more like an artist,” she added. “An artist is more free, or less inhibited than an art historian, to make connections that go across time or across culture or across geography. To connect.”
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