Brooklyn's Museum Under Glass

The Brooklyn Museum spent the last century as a shadow of its original ideal. As envisioned in the 1890's, it was to be the largest museum in the world, about three million square feet — a "monument to chutzpah," in the words of its current director, Arnold Lehman.

Then Brooklyn was folded into New York City, leaving the superlatives in Manhattan. The museum came to house the second-largest art collection in the country — behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan — but in a facility only one-sixth of the original planned size.

Sometimes, the Brooklyn Museum seemed bent on punishing visitors for its frustrated ambition. Those entering through its heavy bronze doors found a gloomy, tomblike hall that seemed to go nowhere. Visitors often missed whole floors of paintings, sculptures and antiquities. Museumgoers — who averaged fewer than 1,000 a day last year — truly suffered for the art they did see in the summer, when galleries were without air-conditioning.

That's all history. Thanks to a $63 million makeover, the forbidding entrance on Eastern Parkway is gone. A structure of tiered glass now both veils and reveals the restored Beaux-Arts facade, making the building itself the museum's largest display. Inside, galleries have been rethought to include a more rounded historic, cultural and sensory experience. An 18th-century Zuni water jar sits beside a Dutch kas, or cabinet, from the same era. Debussy gives way to what sounds like Andean pipes. Totem poles sit in the open, and paintings hang a little lower, all looking magnificent, if vulnerable to curious hands.

The accessibility of pieces is deliberate, even defiant. Casting off museum stodginess — and paying more attention to Caribbean, African and Latin American art — seems to have helped attract more blacks and Latinos, many of whom live in the surrounding neighborhoods. Attendance by members of these minority groups is up nearly 50 percent over the last five years. The average age of visitors, meanwhile, has dropped by almost two decades, to 42.

That Brooklyn seems to have tapped into a market that has escaped many other art institutions hasn't stopped critics who decry the changes, outside and in. But then, they probably have never danced to salsa music in front of a priceless Cézanne. Now they can, in Brooklyn.

600450 Brooklyn's Museum Under Glass
Date: 12 May 2004

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