Curatorial traditions and experimental innovations at the Brooklyn Museum, New York

My recent visit to view the expansive art collections at Brooklyn Museum, located in the Prospect Park area of New York City, provided an interesting  opportunity to peruse and critique a series of complex and engaging artistic and curatorial juxtapositions. On every level of this five storey building the vast collections of exhibits and their interpretation narratives were assembled to encourage dialogues between historical artefacts and contemporary artworks, established and experimental museographic techniques, and also conventional versus innovative perspectives on curation, all coupled together within close proximity throughout the display spaces.

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Detail from the artwork “Skipping Girl” (2009) by Royal Academician Yinka Shonibare MBE, comprising a life-size, headless fibreglass mannequin, dressed in Dutch wax-printed cotton textiles. Photo: Carol Dixon (18/02/2017)

The African Collections on Level 1

Nowhere were these artistic and curatorial binaries more starkly evidenced than in the furthest corner of the Level 1 galleries where two, black walled rooms presented the Museum’s permanent holdings of African art objects as the temporary installation “Double Take: African Innovations.

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Title panel for the temporary, two-room installation, “Double Take” displayed at the entrance to the African galleries in the Brooklyn Museum. Photo: Carol Dixon (18/02/2017)

Whilst it was wonderful browsing these two, tightly filled galleries, packed almost to bursting point with a diverse array of artworks sourced from several African nations, the thematic nature of curator Kevin Dumouchelle’s presentation – contrasting historical sculptural pieces with a range of more recent, multi-media contemporary art exhibits  – was actually rendered quite problematic by the Museum’s decision to retain the old-fashioned convention of showcasing African collections within dimly lit, darkly painted interior settings, designed to communicate (wittingly, or unwittingly) the tired 19th century tropes about Africa being perceived in the West as a culturally mysterious ‘Dark Continent’ (see, for example, Hutcheon 1995: 11-13 and Elliott 2007: 32).
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