One of the borough’s oldest and best-loved cultural institutions will be showing off a brand new look this weekend, as the Brooklyn Children’s Museum reopens on Saturday after a yearlong, $48.5-million renovation.
Last September, the 109-year-old Crown Heights institution shuttered in preparation for its massive makeover, which includes new exhibits and a new addition by boldface architect Rafael Viñoly (he did everything from the Kennedy Center to Bungalow 8, an Upper East Side club, so you know he’s legit).
The rehab doubled the museum’s size.
“We’d totally outgrown the space. We actually couldn’t accommodate families and school groups at the same time,” said museum President Carol Enseki, who cut the ribbon on Wednesday with Mayor Bloomberg.
Clad in 8.1 million yellow ceramic tiles, Viñoly’s boomerang-shaped edifice has a bold, almost playful design that will help the Children’s Museum make a strong statement in the neighborhood.
“There is a growing interest in utilizing world-class art and architecture in children’s museums. We know that kids appreciate good design,” Enseki said. “And we wanted the community to know what was going on inside. From the street, kids will know that’s not an apartment or office building — this is a space especially for them.”
The first museum in the world catering specifically to kids, the Brooklyn Children’s Museum opened in two Victorian mansions along Brower Park in December 1899, when Brooklyn’s overtaxed school system made it an important educational resource for many children. An annex was added in 1929, followed by a move into a new underground building in 1977 (still in use today). New galleries and a small auditorium were added in 1996.
The Viñoly structure has been smoothly integrated with the 1977 building, but adds many new features, including a children’s library and classroom spaces, a desperately needed café (with kosher options) and an installation highlighting the museum’s 30,000-piece collection of scientific and cultural artifacts — including the eight-foot skeleton of an Asian elephant. Down the hall, the Totally Tots exhibit has more than doubled in size to 1,100 square feet.
The original below-ground space, accessible through a sloping (and, mercifully unaltered) tunnel called The People Tube, has also been completely revamped.
“There’s really nothing of the original exhibits left — we totally gutted it,” said Enseki.
One of the most-popular features — an area where kids can pretend to be running their own pizza shop — has been remodeled as the kitchen of Bensonhurst’s famous L&B Spumoni Gardens, a bit of branding that some parents may find unnecessary.
Nearby, the “International Grocery” allows young ones to learn about culinary and ethnic diversity as they shop for Shabbat, Kwanzaa or Thanksgiving using prewritten grocery lists. (Shelves are stocked with familiar staples, as well as halal meats, sushi and Indian ghee.)
The museum’s live specimens have always been a big draw, and “Neighborhood Nature” welcomes recent arrivals, including tarantulas and a spotted salamander.
Combined-species tanks, with two different kinds of animals sharing the same habitat, have also been introduced to provide a more realistic picture of life in the wild.
With live animals reminiscent of a zoo, science stations that bring to mind a natural history museum and play areas that are no different than state-of-the-art playgrounds, it may seem like the newly rehabbed museum is trying to be all things to all visitors. But Enseki said such a broad approach is intentional.
“Our focus has always been to help children learn about the world — and kids don’t think in terms of disciplines,” she explained. “The museum is a gateway. We encourage open-ended exploration rather than dictate the steps the children take.”
At a special preview last weekend, the reaction was overwhelmingly positive.
“My girls aren’t usually too excited about museums, but now that they’ve seen all the exhibits and touched and played with everything. … I won’t be able to drag them away,” said Bedford-Stuyvesant mother Sharon Scherr.
Brooklyn Children’s Museum (145 Brooklyn Ave., at St. Marks Avenue in Crown Heights) will reopen to the public on Saturday, Sept. 20, at 10 am. Admission is $5 through Nov. 30. Regular hours will be Wednesday through Friday, 1–6; Saturdays and Sundays, 10 am–6 pm; closed Mondays and Tuesdays. Subway: Take the 3 to Kingston Avenue; the A to Nostrand Avenue; or the C to Kingston/Throop Avenue. Bus: B43 or B44 to St. Marks Avenue; B25, B45, or B65 to Brooklyn Avenue. Call (718) 735-4400 or visit brooklynkids.org for info.