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

"Grey Area (Brown Version)" (1993), by Fred Wilson

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.

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.

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).

Kuma Mask sculpture from Burkina Faso, made from wood designed in the shape of a bird’s head, c. late-19th century. The artist’s name is unknown. Photo: Carol Dixon (18/02/2017)

On several occasions throughout this museum display, the visiting publics who manage to find their way to this remote section of the Museum are invited to “Take another look!“, cast a second glance, or view the exhibits from an alternative standpoint to anything they have previously experienced – so that audiences are literally compelled to perform the “Double Take” suggested in the title of the installation. Such repetitious instruction embedded in the interpretation text on the display panels naturally provokes more fundamental questions about what African collections in museums should look like when put out on display, and also enables visitors to assess whether this telegraphed approach to applying a curatorial innovation actually deviates in reality from prior established norms, or merely perpetuates more of the same types of viewing (and gazing) practices that invariably ‘other’ artworks from Africa as objects to be treated differently and scrutinised more closely as ‘curiosities’ than any other types of art drawn from around the world.

Exhibition view taken looking towards the entrance area of the African galleries on Level 1 at the Brooklyn Museum. Photo: Carol Dixon (18/02/2017)

A non-chronological sequencing of the art objects, and a non-geographical arrangement of the exhibit types, in favour of a presentation based on (what curator Kevin Dumouchelle describes as) “themes, solutions and techniques that recur across time and space” offers the possibility that visitors will create an infinite number of self-directed pathways through the African collections to (re-)interpret them in innovative ways. Whether this is actually achieved by most visitors remains to be seen, but the attempt at curatorial ‘experimentation’ in this way is at least something to be (tentatively) welcomed when so many other museums in the West remain locked in their imperialist, 19th century conventions of showcasing continental Africa and African descent artists’ cultural outputs as a (somewhat dubious) survey of  art objects produced in perpetually ‘ancient kingdoms’ and ‘primitive cultures’, forever fixed and fossilised by the West’s inherently racist and reductive artistic imaginary.

The Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art on Level 4 

One of the stand-out contemporary artworks from the Brooklyn Museum’s collection displayed as part of the  Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art on Level 4 is the awe-inspiring, room-sized permanent installation by Chicago-born American artist Judy Chicago, titled “The Dinner Party, 1974-79” (2002). This large-scale triangular dining table, positioned on top of gold-engraved white tiles  covered with the names of c.1000 famous women from around the world is an iconic piece that forms the heart of the Museum’s “Herstory Gallery” of feminist art  exhibits. The artwork comprises a pristine white cloth, and 39 individually designed porcelain plates, with ornately decorated place settings laid out over tapestries featuring the names of 39 high-achieving, prominent women in ‘world herstory spanning several historical eras, and representing the Dinner Party’s “guests of honour”- from Celtic Queen Boudicca/Boadicea in the Roman era and Elizabeth I in the 16th century, through to writer Virginia Woolf and painter Georgia O’Keeffe from the 20th century modernist period.

“The Dinner Party, 1974-79” (2002), by Judy Chicago (b. Chicago, IL, 1939) on display in the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, on Level 4 of the Brooklyn Museum. Photo: Carol Dixon (18/02/2017)

Selected works from the Brooklyn Museum’s permanent collections on Levels 4 and 5 

Finally, some of the other significant works featured in the permanent collections on Levels 4 and 5 are illustrated below to give a flavour of the depth, breadth and variety of modern and contemporary works within Brooklyn Museum’s extensive late-20th/early 21st century holdings. Several of these fine art pieces – including the installation “Grey Area (Brown Version)” (1993) by the African-American conceptual artist and curator Fred Wilson (b. 1954, New York) – critique intersected issues of race, class, gender, sexuality, spirituality, cultural heritage and diasporic identity within the context of questioning the historical ‘othering’ and negative ‘differencing’ of people of African descent living in the West.

"Grey Area (Brown Version)" (1993), by Fred Wilson
“Grey Area (Brown Version)” (1993), by conceptual artist and curator Fred Wilson. This famous work features five portrait busts representing the ancient Egyptian Queen Nefertiti, painted in contrasting colour tones, from light oatmeal to dark brown. The subtle and nuanced subject matter of the installation provokes controversial questions about the contested racial identity of ancient Egyptians.
“Early Works, #25: Self Portrait” (1965), by Faith Ringgold (b. 1930, Harlem, New York). Oil on canvas. On display at the Brooklyn Museum. Photo: Carol Dixon (18/02/2017)
Detail from “El Moro” (2014), by Senegalese photographer Omar Victor Diop (b. 1980, Dakar). Photo: Carol Dixon (18/02/2017)
“Frédérick Douglass, Série Diaspora” (2015), by Senegalese photographer and conceptual artist Omar Victor Diop (b. 1980, Dakar). Photo: Carol Dixon (18/02/2017)
“Blossom” (2007) – an installation by African-American contemporary artist Sanford Biggers (b. 1970, Los Angeles, CA). Steel, silk, wood, MIDI player piano system, mound of earth and clay. The piano featured at the centre of this assemblage plays a recording of the haunting anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit” made famous by the jazz singer Billie Holiday. Photo: Carol Dixon (18/02/2017)
Carol Dixon at the Brooklyn Museum, pictured next to a 19th century wooden sculpture by a ‘First Nation’ Heiltsuk artist from the province of British Columbia, Canada (un-named). Photo: Donalea Scott


Brooklyn Museum website –

Elliott, David. 2007. “Africa, exhibitions and fears of the dark…” In Africa Remix: Contemporary Art of a Continent [Exhibition Catalogue], edited by Simon Njami, pp. 31-35. Johannesburg: Jacana Media in association with Johannesburg Art Gallery.

Hutcheon, Linda. 1995. “The post always rings twice: the postmodern and the postcolonial.” Material History Review 41 (Spring), pp. 4-23.


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