Brooklyn Museum

Brooklyn museum has developed a reputation as  a world leader in digital engagement and community outreach. I remember hearing Shelley Bernstein speak at MuseumNext last year and thinking wow, that’s my kind of museum. Yesterday I got to visit Brooklyn Museum for the first time, I was delighted not only did Brooklyn Museum live up to my expectations – it far exceeded them.

I was tweeting while in the museum, and got lots of tweets asking for more information about my visit …. so as promised here are a couple of reasons why I loved Brooklyn Museum:

1: Brooklyn Museum is curatorially ambitious

The first exhibition that I walked into at Brooklyn Museum was ‘Connecting Cultures‘ an exhibition that:

”is organized around three main themes: “Connecting Places,” “Connecting People,” and “Connecting Things.” In viewing the juxtaposition of thematically linked works, visitors are invited to consider the importance of place, of self-representation in art, and of the role that objects play in supporting personal and cultural identity”

In this exhibition visitors are encouraged to put the museum collection into a context which they can relate to. Interpretation plaques make reference to contemporary culture from Bjork, to celebrity body image.

When visitors walk in the door, they see a collection that reflects them, whoever they maybe.

The entrance has a couple of nice Rodin sculptures, alongside a contemporary painting by Kehinde Wiley ‘Napolen Leading the Army over The Alps’. A piece which challenges traditionally white context of portrait painting. In a plaque beside the piece he says

‘Painting is about the world we live in. Black men live in this world. My choice is to include them. This is my way of saying yes to us.’

Context and relevance are 2 things that make a museum collection come alive – for everyone … not just the initiated, educated few! Brooklyn museums curatorial approach creates a strong context and allows visitors to discover the individual relevance of the museums collection for themselves.

2: Brooklyn Museum uses technology in gallery to add a valuable layer to visitor experience.

You won’t find lots of shiny interactive touch screens at Brooklyn. What you will find however are subtle interactive displays using iPads. I hate when you walk into a museum and you can barely see the collection through all of the massive touch screens, but at the Brooklyn museum in gallery technology has a really pervasive feel to it.

From comment booths, to the iPad display that lets you flick through Keith Haring’s journal, each interactive piece added a layer to visitor experience.

The museum also uses QR codes. When a visitor first arrives they get given a ticket with a large QR code on it, this means that they can ask questions about what it is before they even enter their first gallery. In gallery visitors can find information about QR codes and a leaflet on ‘Brooklyn Museum Mobile’ was available throughout the museum.

Explaining what a QR code is, and getting them to work (lighting and WiFi access)  are two common issues. I scanned lots of QR codes at Brooklyn, effortless and seamless are two words that come to mind.

In terms of content, some QR codes acted as wiki links, others provided visitors with information about artists or installation photographs. Each QR I scanned provided a really interesting behind the scenes look at the collection or current exhibition.

Just like iPads you won’t find QR codes everywhere at the Brooklyn Museum, instead they are on a few carefully selected objects. All to often we use technology for technologies sake, I really felt that a Brooklyn technology was carefully considered and added a valuable layer to visitor experience. (This a very short overview, I’ll write more about this specific point in a future blog post)

3: Brooklyn Museum is open, accountable & explains curatorial processes 

In the connecting cultures exhibition, their is a nice flip board which documents the museums history.

In the ‘playing house’  an information leaflet tells visitors that the museum has invited artists to create an ‘activitation’. The leaflet explains that this is a new approach, and discusses why they have asked artists to activate a response to the museums collection and the curatorial thinking behind the new approach.

In some of the galleries ‘alternative voices are represented’, these are on plaques placed beside the curators interpretation panel.

In most museums the majority of exhibits are hidden away in storage. The Brooklyn Museum has an open storage area which allows visitors to come into storage and learn more about museum collections, conservation and collection policies.

Even when asking visitors not to touch the paintings, rather than saying don’t do it! Brooklyn Museum explains why:

‘Please do not touch the artworks. Oils and salts on your hands can damage metal, marble and wood. Many of the artworks in this gallery are not behind glass, and even the gentlest touch can be damaging. Security staff will remind visitors not to touch the art’.

4: Brooklyn Museum is a community hub

Ok so admittedly I only spent one day at the Museum but on the day I visited I saw a really diverse visitor demographic. Young people, old people, white people, black people, hispanic people. It really felt like the visitors I saw in the gallery reflected the community I saw on the streets of Brooklyn.

The cafe was affordable, and was filled with lots of friends catching up (this is one of the first museum cafes I have actually eaten in, the Manhattan museum cafes are all aimed at people who aren’t struggling PhD students!)

Their was free wifi in the public promenade at the front of the museum, which was filled with people playing on their i-pads, or skating with friends.

Price is an issue. I’m not used to paying into museums, and the entrance fee is no doubt a barrier but the museums Target First Saturday provides a monthly opportunity for visitors to come in for free.

* This is a very quick blog post. I will be writing a more detailed and considered response to my visit in my final Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Fellowship report which will be available to view later in the year.

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