Later in life, the great poet Walt Whitman recalled the events of the Fourth of July, 1825. At around 6 years old, he wrote, he attended the cornerstone laying ceremony of the Brooklyn Apprentices’ Library, which had been incorporated a year earlier.
The man who later penned “Song of Myself” said he was proud to have been lifted up into a better viewing position by none other than the Marquis de Lafayette, the French aristocrat who became a Revolutionary War general and hero, who was on hand to place the cornerstone.
The library’s name and mission changed over time, and it started to focus on showing art in the 1840s — with Whitman on hand to view and chronicle the exhibitions in his newspaper work — and eventually evolved into the Brooklyn Museum.
This year, the museum will sing a song of itself for its 200th anniversary, with a slate of events and exhibitions that includes a major group show of Brooklyn artists and a reinstallation of its American art galleries.
“We’re trying to reflect our deep roots as a center for social good in art and a place for people of all backgrounds to come together,” said Anne Pasternak, the museum’s director since 2015.
She added, “We’re going to do it the Brooklyn way — with curiosity, courage and joy.”
“The Brooklyn Artists Exhibition,” slated to open Oct. 4, will be the largest such show the museum has put on. It is being conceived as an open-call, invitational-style show that will be installed in the museum’s first-floor Great Hall and will feature some 300 local makers.
It will be curated with the help of a committee of well-known artists including Mickalene Thomas, Jeffrey Gibson, Fred Tomaselli and Vik Muniz.
Pasternak said that she has been wanting to do such a show since she arrived at the museum, and that she was contemplating making it a regular feature. “Nothing gives artists more joy than when other artists select their work,” she said.
In preparation for the reinstallation of the American art galleries, also set to debut Oct. 4, some of the galleries will start to close Feb. 5 on a rolling basis. The new presentation of around 400 works, she said, will emphasize people of color, Indigenous groups and historically marginalized voices.
“Lots of museums can tell that classic American story well,” Pasternak said. “So we wanted to see what other stories we can tell. We’re bringing the past in conversation with the present.”
The reinstallation will be the last iteration of the current spaces before their eventual overhaul, part of a major renovation to be funded by a $50 million gift from the City of New York that the museum received in 2021.
Another anniversary show, titled “Solid Gold,” will open Nov. 15 and will explore gold as a material and as a color across Renaissance paintings, Japanese screens and other works.
This summer, in a pilot program, Museum on Wheels — a mobile, interactive art bus housed in an Airstream trailer — will begin rolling through Brooklyn to deliver cultural programming, especially to underserved communities.
The museum became known for its innovations in the early 20th century, when it developed a collection of Egyptian antiquities, and in 1945 it was one of the first museums to dedicate an exhibition to the work of contemporary Black artists. The Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art debuted in 2007.
Brooklyn itself eventually became the “best urban brand on the planet,” as Pasternak put it.
A few controversies erupted at the museum along the way, most pointedly the 1999 show “Sensation,” featuring the so-called Young British Artists in the collection of the advertising magnate Charles Saatchi.
“Sensation” included “The Holy Virgin Mary,” Chris Ofili’s 1996 painting of a Black Virgin Mary on a canvas studded with elephant dung. It so enraged then- Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani that he tried and failed to cut off the museum’s funding and to evict the museum from its city-owned building.
With that in the rearview mirror, this fall’s celebrations will also include an Oct. 5 party the museum is calling Birthday Bash, currently slated to be a daylong version of its monthly First Saturdays program. But Pasternak said she was toying with the idea of making it a supersized, three-day event.
“I’m getting the staff warmed up to the idea,” Pasternak said. “They’re exhausted just hearing about it.”