The Brooklyn Museum, housed in a 560,000-square-foot, neoclassical beaux-arts building, is one of the oldest and largest art museums in the country. Its world-renowned permanent collections range from ancient Egyptian masterpieces to contemporary art and represent a wide range of cultures. The museum is also New York City's third largest in physical size and holds an art collection with roughly 1.5 million works. The museum building has undergone near constant renovations since its construction completed in 1926, and is a shining example of modern and historical integration.
Backstory and Context
In 1823, August Graham founded the Brooklyn Apprentices’ Library, the first step in a long series of evolutions that would result in the Brooklyn Museum. The library moved into the Brooklyn Lyceum building in 1841, with the two organizations merging two years later to form the Brooklyn Institute. The conglomerate organization was a multi-faceted center for the arts, offering lectures on a wide range of subjects and serving as a space for art exhibitions. For almost fifty years, the Brooklyn Institute flourished until director Franklin Hooper reorganized it into the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences. The new institute began planning for a monumental museum, and commissioned the architects McKim, Mead & White to design such a building. The architects delivered on the grand scale institute leaders desired as the original plans would have made the Brooklyn Museum the largest in the world. In addition to designing the museum building, McKim, Mead & White also designed other components of the Brooklyn Institute such as the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and Central Library of the Brooklyn Public Library System.
Construction began on the Brooklyn Museum in 1895 but was not completed entirely until 1926. Many problems hindered construction. An auditorium was added to the basement of the building, which required the main floor to be raised, which in turn necessitated a complete revision of the building’s monumental entry stairway. Most construction was paused during World War I. Additional changes were made to the museum in the 1920s so that it would line up with the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, which was also being constructed. New construction effectively finished in 1926, though the museum building was only a quarter of the size McKim, Mead & White had initially intended. The Brooklyn Museum building is in a neoclassical style with beaux-arts details and features.
Despite being recently built, the museum was left to deteriorate until 1934. During this year, the Municipal Art Commission rushed a demolition of the front staircase of the building. The rush was due to disagreement with the architects who did not wish to see the design modified – the commission simply made changes while McKim, Mead & White were out of town. With the removal of the stairs, the entrance and lobby of the museum were relocated to the ground floor. Modifications continued at the Brooklyn Museum throughout the latter half of the twentieth century. In the 1950s, beaux-arts details were removed from most of the columns. In the 1970s, an extension was created which now houses educational facilities. As the original auditorium had been usurped by the new lobby, a 460 seat auditorium was added under the auspices of Arata Isozaki and James Stewart Polshek. During the 1990s, a nearly decade long refurbishment repaired and replaced the skylights and roof of the entire museum.
Some of the Brooklyn Museum’s most striking changes have occurred in the last twenty years. In 2004, a critically acclaimed and extensively awarded plaza, entrance, and fountain were added to the front of the building. Other changes in 2004 include renovation of the museum’s library and the Luce Center for American Art. The 2007 Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art was the first public space of its kind in the United States and features iconic feminist works such as Judy Chicago’s “The Dinner Party.” The Brooklyn Museum is currently renovating the Great Hall space on the main floor. Once completed, it will provide a more cohesive entrance experience to the museum by rearranging museum services, such as the gift shop, and allowing space for a rotating introductory gallery.
The Brooklyn Museum is home to many major art collections. The Egyptian, Classical, and Ancient Near Eastern Art Collection, is often considered to be a seminal array of works. It was established in 1900 alongside the Arts of Africa Collection, which is similarly significant. A bequest in 1855 established an American Collection, which includes works dated up to circa 1945. Other important collections include the Arts of the Pacific Islands Collection, Arts of the Islamic World Collection, and the European Art Collection. The lattermost collection contains a multitude of nineteenth century impressionist paintings and sculptures by artists such as Berthe Morisot, Claude Monet, and Paul Cézanne. The museum also maintains a collection of Contemporary Art, complemented by the relatively newer Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art. In addition to art objects, the Brooklyn Museum Libraries and Archives holds over 300,000 volumes.
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