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Brooklyn Museum pushes limits with secrets and scandals

December 2011

“The Met?” asks a Curator of the Brooklyn Museum. “Don’t quote me, but the Met’s Egyptian collection is Macy’s. Our Egyptian collection is Tiffany’s.”

Yes, the Metropolitan Museum of Art does have its impressive reconstructed Egyptian temple and Egyptian arcades. But the Brooklyn Museum has a more astonishing collection. A chamber of mummies (which includes both the coffin and a mummy for the sacred ibis), spacious room after spacious room with endless statues, busts and—in the final, Byzantine room, a vast space where, amid Byzantine art, one has the feeling of being in a 2nd-century church.

The Brooklyn Museum devotes almost an entire floor to Egyptian galleries, not only the art, but exhibits about women’s roles, temples, technology and communication. More than 1,200 objects—including some of the most beautiful busts and art I have ever seen. The displays don’t have the simulated Egyptian temple settings of the Met. Instead, we have endless galleries in pristine condition.

All of this with walls of funky Egyptian quotes from Herodotus to Mark Twain to Gloria Steinem.

But the Brooklyn Museum, in its 483,000 square feet over five floors, has other surprises that stagger the imagination—as well as the rare visitor from outside Brooklyn. Between its fine African collection and Chinese ceramics, it shows, said one official, “Virtually every culture in the world.”

One whole floor is devoted to the first (and probably only) Feminist Centre of Art, the centre of which is an iconic room titled The Dinner Party, where virtually all the famed women of history have their own seats, plates, places, dinnerware and symbolic settings.

The fifth floor is devoted to American Identities, including a fine Georgia O’Keeffe painting. One floor below that is a fascinating history of American architecture. Not the eminent constructions, but farmhouses, plantation houses, and even the mansion of John D. Rockefeller.

It also includes my favourite painting, of Brooklyn in the 1840s, a scene that could have been painted by Breugel. And the famous portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Chase.

It took a few viewings to realize that this was more than idealized. Yes, Washington has a sword, his hands rest on a bookcase—but outside the window is a beautiful rainbow.

Obviously, America’s “exceptionalism” in its future.

Widely regarded as the first epic feminist artwork, Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party functions as a symbolic history of women in Western civilization.

The Brooklyn Museum has its secrets that aren’t listed in any books.

First, while you walk through, you could find yourself a bit dizzy, rooms winding around each other like an Escher landscape. The reason? Back in 1897, with independent Brooklyn stretching its muscles before being incorporated into New York City, this was planned to be the largest museum in the world. The first site on the vacant land was the West Wing, and it was to be extended indefinitely … until it stopped. Money dried up and competition with the Met became crippling. Different modular buildings were erected, but nothing was quite in place. It’s quite an eccentric piece of architecture.

(The museum started as the Library for Apprentices in 1826, and one of its first librarians was a young poet named Walt Whitman.)

I prefer the Brooklyn Museum for its scandals. The Met has always been under the sharp eyes of its millionaire patrons, but the Brooklyn has been more free-wheeling, with temporary exhibits pushing the envelope of public outrage.

A decade ago, an exhibition called Sensation featured pictures of corpses, dead animals and other juicy bits. But when somebody discovered that a picture of the Virgin Mary was painted on a background of—Father, forgive us!—elephant feces, everybody from the Catholic Legion of Decency to the mayor of New York screamed the equivalent of “holy s--t!” Litigation was in the works, the museum was denied funding from government arts foundations (later returned), and those who never went near a museum had virtual fainting fits. Few of them had seen it (I did, and besides the Virgin Mary, there were several other historical figures, since elephant dung is not regarded with any horror in Africa).

An exhibition this year called Graffiti, celebrating sidewalk art, prurient poems and blatant sexual paintings, was called off after a local newspaper (which makes its money through prurient news and blatant sexual stories), said it was “sticking the thumbs in the eyes of every bodega owner and restaurant manager who struggles to keep his or her property graffiti-free.”

The image is pretty damned bloody, but in a time of near-recession, the Brooklyn Museum didn’t have the funds for more prolonged lawsuits, so it backed out.

Even the Egyptian exhibit was peripherally on the edge of a scandal. The original donor had been an official in the government of Boss Tweed, the very avatar of corruption in the 1880s. He used his ill-gotten lucre to collect Egyptian treasures when it was still legal, and then offered them to the Met. Turning up its patrician noses, he went to the Brooklyn, which gave it a home and has constantly added to the shows.

Its exhibits change every few months, but January and February this year have equally “questionable” shows. The titles give it away: Raw/Cooked; Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture; Youth and Beauty: Art of the American Twenties, with a particularly beautiful androgynous male on the poster.

It’s true that the Brooklyn was founded to give pride to its borough. Yet any visit assures us Manhattanites, just 30 minutes away by subway, that their ornery, unexpected plunge into the underbelly of art, culture and history, makes it a rare treat.

200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, N.Y. Suggested fees: $10, $6 for seniors. 718-638-5000, TTY: 718-399-8440.



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