Monday, July 26, 2010

Museum Review: Brooklyn Museum

Brooklyn Museum
New York, New York
Recommendation: 5 stars (out of 5)

To be honest, although I have visited New York City many times, I’ve never ventured beyond Manhattan in search of culture. And to be honest again, I wasn’t sure I would find any.

How wrong I was. The Brooklyn Museum, which I first learned about many years ago when I heard its director speak at a museum conference when I was living in Georgia, is the second largest art museum in New York (after the Met), and has a collection that, in many ways, is as strong if not stronger.

But I’ve wanted to visit the Brooklyn Museum for about a year or two, ever since I read about its a new front entrance (its back entrance admittedly still has a back entrance quality to it) and learned about the treasures buried inside. Today, I finally did that.

What struck me first about the museum was how empty it was in comparison to the Met and the MOMA. Although the museum has its own subway stop—and on a line that’s easily accessible to most tourist hotels in Manhattan—few people ventured across the river.

What struck me next was the power of its exhibits. I could have spent the entire day in the decorative arts collection, which—in addition to period rooms—features full-size houses, reconstructed in the museum. The rooms reflect a broader range of the American experience than those in the Met, including farm houses from early Brooklyn, a southern plantation, a New England salt box home, and an Art Deco study from a fashionable Manhattan apartment. (The Met has no twentieth century rooms.)

Other examples of decorative arts include several cases of twentieth century furniture (including Italian modern design), stained glass, and an exquisite collection of jewelry.

My partner commented that he thought that the quality of the collection at the Brooklyn Museum exceeded that of the Met. I agreed.

One of the most unique collections at the Brooklyn Museum is its feminist collection, whose centerpiece is Judy Chicago’s the Dinner Party, a “gathering” of 1038 noteworthy women, most of whom were forgotten or undervalued in history. I became familiar with The Dinner Party years ago; some of the poetry written for it became part of the liturgy at the synagogue I attended at the time. I had since read descriptions of the artwork, but nothing prepared me for something of the scale, artistic quality, or intellectual depth of that which confronted me. A welcoming hall with stunning tapestries greets visitors, and prepares them for the massive, triangular dining hall, which features a triangular table large enough to seat scores of guests. It includes a large number of settings, which—in addition to common silverware and globlets, feature a custom designed plate in the spirit of the guest, as well as the guest’s name embroidered on the table cloth.

Another exhibit that caught my attention was an exhibit on light and Sufism in Islamic art and culture. Although I knew that the Sufi sect is the mystical sect of the religion, beyond that, I knew very little. Thanks to the exhibit labels, I learned where Sufism comes from, some of its basic tenets, and some of its basic practices. One surprising example for this ignorant person was that dervishes are followers of Sufi, and the dances they perform are part of their spiritual practices.

This being a museum—especially one that focuses on displaying art—artwork formed the centerpiece of the exhibit and the artwork in this one did not disappoint. Among the many impressive objects were illustrated manuscripts with exceptional calligraphy; a manuscript etched into glass, and a beautifully gilded and decorated alms bowl. (That’s not the correct technical term, but the one that comes to mind now.)

The centerpiece of this museum is its Egyptian collection. It contains nearly 1,000 objects that are engagingly displayed and clearly and extensively documented. Because the collection requires several dedicated hours to fully digest, we merely skimmed it.

It’s too bad that many New York visitors don’t venture to this museum in Brooklyn; it’s worth the visit, and lacks both the crowds and the gift shop annexes of the mega-museums in Manhattan. (And the single gift shop it has features many one-of-a-kind items, in sharp contrast to the many widely duplicated items in the MOMA and Met stores).

But for me, I’m glad I made the journey, and cannot wait to journey back.

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