Museum Review: Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn USA
The Brooklyn Museum is located on Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, NY. It is not hard to get to, with numerous subway lines stopping within a 5 minute walk of it. It is set nicely in a Botanic Garden, which, if you arrive in spring as I did, has almost all of its plants in bloom and is a beautiful walk. Before I introduce you, dear reader, to the museum, let me first say that I had really no idea about the Brooklyn Museum. I suppose I had heard of it before, but I was not expecting what I encountered.
The museum has its roots as far back as 1823, with the founding of the Brooklyn Apprentices’ Library. By 1890, the plan was to build a large building to house the Brooklyn Institute, and a number of other institutions under one roof. They had originally planned for four wings, much like the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan, but in the end only one wing was built (see above). Its collections vary widely, and are not strictly archaeological, so you get all the benefits of a big museum without having to spend 3 days being jostled among hundreds of people to see everything. Admission is technically free, but they suggest a donation of $16 for Adults. You should give a donation, but can give anything you want.
As I write, their 2nd floor is being renovated so the Arts of Asia and the Islamic World is closed, but they did move some items in this collection to other areas. On the 4th floor there are some important European paintings and I personally think that the decorative arts section of any museum is always a must-see. They also have some beautifully recreated period rooms. The image below is of the recreation of the Jan Martense Schenck House, from Brooklyn, circa 1675-76.
While I was there they had an exhibit of Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks. In fairness, I am not much of a modern art fan, so I don’t understand much about the Brooklyn-born Jean-Michel Basquiat’s importance, but it was a good installation.
The 5th and top floor of the Brooklyn Museum is American art collections, which is a crucial collection for any American museum. Don’t pass it up.
My favorite floor was the Near East and Egyptian floor, the 3rd floor, and the reason that this museum review is being written. The museum has dedicated almost a whole floor to their permanent display of Egyptian objects. As you enter the floor, you see an impressive display of Near Eastern objects.
The beautiful reliefs from the Palace of Ashur-Nasir-pal II arrived at the museum in 1937, through a circuitous route. In 1840, an English diplomat, Austen Henry Layard, was sailing down the Tigris river and noticed a large mound. He came back 5 years later and excavated the remains of the palace from 879BC. The excavations proved extremely successful, and the British Museum, who received the lot, had to sell a number of sculptures and reliefs. In 1855 they were bought by an American expat in London, and shipped to Boston. They were unable to raise funds for the items in Boston, so James Lenox of the New York Historical Society bought them. The NYHS loaned them to the museum in 1937, and the museum was finally able to purchase them in 1955, thanks to a donation from art dealer and collector Hagop Kevorkian. They are now installed in the Hagop Kevorkian Gallery of Ancient Near Eastern Art. There are other important objects in the Gallery as well. Honestly, I don’t usually stop for the Mesopotamians, but the Brooklyn Museum has done an excellent job with this collection that I stopped and spent a lot of time there.
Many of the Egyptian artifacts at the Brooklyn museum came either from the Abbott Collection from the New York Historical Society or from a bequest by Charles Edwin Wilbour and his wife. Wilbour was an American who travelled to Egypt in the mid-19th century, and is one of the first recognized American Egyptologists. (See here for a museum review from Archaeology Magazine about the Wilbour exhibit!) In his travels, as many scholars and tourists did then, Wilbour bought antiquities, so many of them are without a specific provenance. The Abbott Collection was purchased from the NYHS in 1948 and contained about 2000 objects. The exhibit in the museum is set up so that you can walk in a straight line from predynastic Egypt through the Egyptian timeline and end with some Hellenistic items.
The labels explain everything very clearly, and are geared toward educating the public. One feature I have never seen before are the ipads available in many rooms where you can “Ask an expert” a question you may have. There are also video monitors where the experts have already answered public questions and you can watch their responses.
My personal favorite is the dedicated mummy chamber with 4 mummies in it, of which I took no pictures. Sorry. Throughout the display of a fully unrolled Book of the Dead scroll, some alabaster canopic jars, and even a small, rearticulated tomb, the display explains the process and reasoning behind mummification. Importantly, the mummymania phenomenon of the 19th and 20th centuries is analyzed in a few panels, and museum-goers can even watch some scenes from the 1932 film The Mummy with Boris Karloff. That seems to be talking across purposes, but it does draw people to the panel, so it works.
The museum is bigger than I thought it would be and everyone there is very nice and helpful. I was there for some archival work—they hold most of Wilbour’s papers and a number of rare books in their amazing Wilbour Egyptological Library you cannot get elsewhere—and the archivists are endlessly knowledgeable about their collections as well as curious about what you’re working on. They’re lovely.
If you’re in New York and want a good museum that isn’t too crowded, do check out the Brooklyn Museum.