There are 25,000 objects in Brooklyn Museum’s decorative arts collection, with one man in charge of them all. His name is Barry Harwood, the collection’s curator—a position that places him somewhere between a design expert and a personal shopper.
“The first objects acquired were in 1902,” says Harwood, who joined the museum in 1988. “It was a pair of silver spoons. In terms of the United States, it’s a very old collection. At 25,000 objects, it’s certainly one of the largest in the country.”
Every major art museum keeps a collection devoted to both aesthetic and useful objects–the stuff a society makes says as much about its culture and concerns as any other art form. Few decorative arts collections are as vast as Brooklyn’s though, and their contents can vary greatly depending on the interests of their curators.
Bypassing the museum’s main channels, Harwood swipes his ID badge to accesses a private elevator, which takes us to the fifth floor where the majority of the decorative arts are displayed. The collection is so big it extends onto the floor below, but even with the extra space, less than half is on view at any given time.
“The real focus of the collection here is American design from 1850 forward,” says Harwood, stepping into the gallery. “One is always looking for innovation, quality and new materials, originality, so those things have to come together and make an object, but what’s interesting about the collection here at Brooklyn, is that we certainly have masterpieces, but we’ve always collected much further down the food chain.”
A prime example of this high-low mix is a display of 19th century food molds Harwood stops to admire.
“The collection grows mostly one object at a time, but occasionally collectors, who have amassed a whole group of similar objects, will donate them,” he explains. “That was the case with these molds. These are completely utilitarian objects. When they were made, the cook might have lined them up in the kitchen, but no one thought they would end up in a museum.”
“They are examples of what we call material culture, of objects that are very evocative of a time and place, and this was part of Americans becoming so well-to-do they made these elaborate gelling molds for food.”
Down the hall from the food molds is a hybrid gallery known as Visible Storage, which was donated to the museum by The Henry Luce Foundation. Its floor-to-ceiling glass enclosures are packed tightly to accommodate myriad items grouped together by type, not time period.
“This is more the way objects are kept in storage,” Harwood says. “They are densely packed on shelves and identified by what we call the accession number.”
Each piece of the collection has its own number plate. Occasionally Harwood lifts a pair of clear-framed glasses, which hang below his bow tie, to read one as we walk. For the past five years, the museum’s staff has been uploading information on decorative arts objects, creating a digital catalog of the museum’s collection that can be accessed through iPads affixed to the ends of aisles in the hybrid gallery, as well as on Brooklyn Museum’s website. So far they’ve uploaded info for 16,402 objects. Harwood anticipates it’ll take another 10 years to finish the task.
A collection of Tiffany lamps catches my eye before I spot something familiar. It’s a piggy bank by the New York designer Harry Allen, and as we stop to look at the little blue pig, Harwood points to a pair of what appear to be clown shoes, the body and sole of which are separated by a series of springs.
“They were called Satellite Shoes,” he says. “They were from the time of Sputnik, and so the child puts them on and sort of bounced along. I had never seen them before. I found that they were made by the Rapaport Brothers in Chicago in the 1950s.”
Harwood discovered them at a flea market, which is one of the main ways, along with design showcases, antique markets and private dealers, he finds new items to add to the museum.
“Sometimes there are things I know I would like to have for the collection, and so I let dealers know, but sometimes people will turn up with these incredible, unexpected discoveries.”
Acquisitions aren’t always so easy to come by, and sometimes, Harwood says, he’ll have his eye on something that’s too costly for the museum to consider.
“Sometimes we’re priced out of the competition,” he says. “That really has happened with some contemporary furniture like Marc Newson’s aluminum sofa that he wanted to sell for more than a million dollars. It was beyond the reach of the Brooklyn Museum, so even though it’s something I would love to have and admire as a really beautiful object, unless a collector buys and then gives it to us, we’re just not in the running for objects of that price.”
In fact, the museum has come by most of the collection as gifts. That’s not to say, however, that Harwood is just waiting around for someone to donate their coffee mugs or Dutch colonial furniture.
“The real challenge of any curator is to look at the incredible amount of material being made by artists and manufacturers and try to figure out what is going to be lasting, what is going to be meaningful for the future,” Harwood says. “I think it’s very much an ongoing collection. It will continue to grow by adding modern things and by adding historical things so we can tell the story in a richer and more thorough way.”
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