A Visit to the Brooklyn Museum

January 13, 2007

The Brooklyn Museum is one of the least popular and, unquestionably, most controversial of the nation’s major museums.

Originally planned in the late 1800s as an outgrowth of the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences, it was meant to be a center of education and research in science, art and natural history. At the time, Brooklyn was not yet incorporated into the City of New York, and the Brooklyn Museum was designed on a scale suited to the ambitions of the vibrant, rapidly-growing city. The massive Beaux Arts building was designed by McKim, Mead & White, then the preeminent architectural firm in the country, and was intended to be “the largest single museum structure in the world.”

The museum has amassed one of the world’s greatest Egyptian collections and is noted for its significant holdings of American and European paintings and more than two dozen American period rooms.

Like most public institutions, over the years the museum has struggled with budgetary constraints, changes in public tastes and shifting political fortunes. However, the Brooklyn Museum has also suffered from a long series of controversial policies and decisions. These range from the destruction of the significant architectural features (the results of ill-conceived attempts to renovate and modernize) to the outrage surrounding many of the choices made by museum director Arnold Lehman.

In recent years the museum’s efforts have shifted from a focus on education to an emphasis on finding ways to increase attendance. It has mounted large exhibits devoted to aspects popular culture including ‘Star Wars’ films, hip-hop performers, photographs of Marilyn Monroe and graffiti, where “hipness,” glitz and glitter were abundant while scholarship seemed to be in short supply.

I appreciate a museum showing me something new or unexpected (in fact, that’s one of the primary reasons I visit) but I want to understand what I’m seeing and why the museum has deemed it worthy of exhibition. And museum-going in New York isn’t cheap. I feel cheated if I have to spend money to reach a museum, pay an admission fee to get in and then find that, in order to learn about the show’s significance and historical context, I’d have to shell out $50 more for a copy of the catalog.

Regardless of whether the information is communicated through signs, brochures, audiotours, docents or some other means, I want to leave a museum feeling that I’ve learned something substantial. All too often, this hasn’t been my experience at the Brooklyn Museum and in response, I’ve stayed away.

However, on October 20, 2006, amidst much hype, the museum opened an exhibition of work by photographer Annie Liebovitz. For months I was able to withstand the ads that adorned every bus shelter and subway car touting the show, the accompanying book and the television documentary, but was unable to ignore the people who asked why I hadn’t yet seen the show. Finally, today, I succumbed to peer pressure and visited the Brooklyn Museum.

The museum must have seriously underestimated the effect their marketing efforts would have, because on this frigid day the entrance line stretched out the front door and down the block. Once inside, museum-goers waited to pay admission, then waited again for admittance to elevators that they went to exhibit floor (special elevators were reserved for members and VIPs), and finally queued up for admission to the rooms where 200 or so of Liebovitz’s photographs hung.

Although she is known primarily for her portraits of celebrities, the show also included photos of Liebovitz’s travels, friends and family. While most of her work was familiar, the surprise of the day appeared in an adjacent area where the startling, extraordinarily lifelike work of Australian sculptor Ron Mueck was displayed.

Two exhibits worth seeing, both diligently patrolled by guards who told visitors to please put away their cameras; taking photographs is forbidden. “Sorry,” they said, “but no pictures are allowed. It’s a museum policy.”

Iggy Pop by Annie Liebovitz
Originally uploaded by annulla.

Mick Jagger by Annie Liebovitz
Originally uploaded by annulla.

Nicole Kidman by Annie Liebovitz
Originally uploaded by annulla.

Susan at the House on Hedges Lane by Annie Liebovitz
Originally uploaded by annulla.

Mask by Ron Mueck
Originally uploaded by annulla.

Baby by Ron Mueck
Originally uploaded by annulla.

Big Man by Ron Mueck
Originally uploaded by annulla.

Brooklyn Museum
Ron Mueck at the Brooklyn Museum
Annie Leibovitz at the Brooklyn Museum
PBS American Masters: Annie Liebovitz
Annie Leibovitz at the Brooklyn Museum (Part 1)
Discord at Brooklyn Museum
Brooklyn Museum Offs Curatorial Depts
Loss of Curators’ Power Seen in Brooklyn Museum
Museum Recruited Donors Who Stood To Gain
Museum Group Adopts Guidelines on Sponsors
Art, Money & Control

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