History in the making: The Brooklyn Museum to mark bicentennial milestone with spectacular year-long celebration

brooklyn museum
The Brooklyn Museum will celebrate its 200th birthday this fall.
File photo

The Brooklyn Museum turns 200 this fall — and organizers are preparing for a larger-than-life celebration set to last an entire year.

The celebration will kick off in October and will include the opening of a new space, multi-artist exhibits, the unveiling of new artifacts, parties and more.

“The Brooklyn Bridge is the borough’s symbol, but the museum is the most emblematic cultural  institution Brooklinites have,” said Max Jensen, a historian at CUNY University. “The fact that the museum is a first-class curated space that highlights first and foremost Brooklyn-based artists, authors, musicians and on top of that, offers a free party every month, puts it at the top of my list.”

When the museum — now the second largest in all of New York City at 560,000-square-feet — first opened its doors in 1824, it did so on Washington Street, and served as Brooklyn’s first free circulating library. It then merged with the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences in 1843, and has morphed and expanded many times since — but not without challenges.

Brooklyn Museum’s original building was destroyed in a fire in 1891, but the borough’s elite had warmed up to the institution and, within eight years, a new building for it was in the works by Prospect Park.

Jazz In The Garden at the Brooklyn Museum, featuring The Bertha Hope Quintet on July 23, 2023.Photo by Kolin Mendez/The Brooklyn Museum

Since its founding, the museum has used its exhibit to denounce social injustices of many kinds, not only through art, but also through public hearings and discussions requested by its visitors. The establishment even works as a voting site during the city’s elections to help increase public participation, along with dozens of cultural institutions across the country.

“Protests as well as parades go down Eastern Parkway every year and the building doesn’t stand there passively,” said Jensen. “It has been a shelter for revolutionaries, for creators, for the community and even for democracy for years.”

The museum’s free First Saturday programming has become one of the city’s hottest tickets — especially during Pride Month. But its support for the LGBTQ community is a year-long commitment, according to collaborators and participants.

Even on international issues affecting the borough’s diverse residents, the museum has lended its influence to make a statement. In 2022, the OY/YO statue by American and Brooklyn-based artist Deborah Kass that stands in front of the neo-classic building was partially covered in blue to support Ukraine as it was invaded by Russia.

The 8-foot-high aluminum letters of ‘OY/YO,’ which debuted in Brooklyn Bridge Park in 2015, settled into a new spot front of the Brooklyn Museum in 2018. In 2022, the installation was adorned with blue fabric to show support for the Ukraine.Photo by Ximena Del Cerro

When it comes to it’s museography, its collection includes 3,000-year-old antiques and pieces by A-list and world-recognized personalities like abstract artist Mark Rothko, popular culture realist Edward Hopper, French Impressionist Edgar Degas and Brooklyn-based emerging artists of varying mediums. The Brooklyn Museum also has a sculpture garden and a fine dining restaurant.

“It has shown boldness and loyalty to its values and its people for decades,” Jensen said.

Organizers say the anniversary lineup — kicking off on Oct. 4 with support from Bank of America — will “reinterpret the museum’s collection in daring new ways.”

To celebrate its big birthday, the museum will launch “Museum on Wheels,” an interactive and educational art bus that will work with locals on several issues, including climate change, mass criminalization, and local economic growth. The initiative aims to give even more Brooklynites access to the institution’s iconic programming.

“This is a time of great momentum at the Brooklyn Museum! Always a trailblazer, the Museum has a long history of transformation and defying convention,” said the museum’s director, Anne Pasternak, in a statement. “We are a space that welcomes diverse points of view, challenges the status quo, and weaves together all forms of art and culture to truly represent the people we serve. At this exciting moment in our journey, we look forward to celebrating our history and future ambitions as a museum that is both rigorous and joyous, historic and contemporary.”

art class at the brooklyn museum
The Brooklyn Museum has always had a strong focus on education and engagement, as seen in its recent expansion of the Toby Devan Lewis Educational Center.Photo courtesy of Cassandra Giraldo/Brooklyn Museum

Two more “landmark” exhibitions will open on Oct. 4, including the “Brooklyn Artists Exhibition,” which will gather the work of a major group of borough-based artists, and a “significant reinstallation” of the Museum’s American Art galleries, foregrounding Black feminist and BIPOC perspectives on American art history.

The next day, a celebratory edition of First Saturdays will constitute a “Birthday Bash,” featuring a host of activities, performances, and vendors from across the borough. Going on, the Brooklyn Museum has planned exhibits featuring gold in art, fashion, global culture and other new and exciting pieces.

The anniversary comes at a time of growth for the institution. This month, the Brooklyn Museum celebrated the reopening of the Toby Devan Lewis Education Center. The revamped 9,500-square-foot space allows the institution to better serve the more-than-50,000 visitors who participate in its educational programs each year. Later this spring, it will expand its first-floor gift shop.

“By staying up to date with the community’s needs, the museum is exponentiating the cultural power of Brooklyn,” Jensen told Brooklyn Paper. “Future generations will have tenements of this society’s efforts to come together, to make art, and to express in new forms.”

The Brooklyn Museum is located at 200 Eastern Parkway and is open Wednesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., and on the first Saturday of each month from 5-11 p.m. For more information, visit brooklynmuseum.org.