The world’s first museum designed expressly for children

Brooklyn Children’s Museum is the world’s first museum designed expressly for children. The Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences founded the Museum in 1899 as an alternative to existing museums. BCM revolutionized museum-going with its emphasis on participatory exhibits for children, on an educational philosophy of learning through first-hand experience. Anna Billings Gallup, who became curator in 1903, was the Museum’s driving force over 35 years. She challenged the staff to enhance children’s understanding of themselves and the world in which they live, and to create an interdisciplinary museum experience at the intersection of arts, sciences and world cultures.

The Museum’s original home, the Adams Building, was a Victorian mansion located in Bedford Park (renamed Brower Park in 1921) in Crown Heights. The many parlors and hallways were converted into exhibit halls and the upstairs rooms became workshops, clubrooms, and a library of 900 books.  Early exhibits displayed natural history specimens such as minerals, birds, insects, shells, and botanical and zoological models from the Museum’s permanent collection.

Throughout the Depression, WPA workers were active in the “Children’s Museum Project,” preparing dioramas, painting landscapes in exhibits, and mounting specimens at Brooklyn Children’s Museum. The project began a popular Take-Home Collections Program which still exists today as the Portable Collections Program, delivering objects and materials from the Museum to schools.  After WWII, the Museum focused its programs on the scientific and technological advancements of the 20th Century.  Youngsters joined science-related clubs and activities that aspired to prepare them for the “space age.”

By 1967, the Smith and Adams Mansions were closed due to advanced deterioration. A temporary facility known as “Muse” opened in a renovated pool hall and auto showroom in Crown Heights in 1968.  Responding to the needs of the institution’s surrounding neighborhoods, Muse redefined the boundaries of museum education, integrating arts, culture and science with social and civic issues.

Between 1972 and 1975, a new home for Brooklyn Children’s Museum was constructed on the site of the Smith Mansion in Brower Park. The 35,000 square-foot underground structure, designed by architectural firm of Hardy Holzman & Pfeiffer Associates, cost $3.5 million. In 1977, the facility opened, featuring a turn-of-the-century trolley kiosk entrance and a “stream” running the length of the “people tube” tunnel.

In 2008, the Museum ushered in its second century with a major building expansion that increased its footprint to over 100,000 square feet of interior space, with a 20,000 square foot roof terrace and 10,000 square foot children’s garden. The current Museum building was designed by architect Rafael Vinoly. It is New York City’s first and only LEED-certified green museum and demonstrates innovative uses of alternative energy sources and renewable building materials.

Brooklyn Children’s Museum remains one of only a handful of children’s museums with a permanent collection, which today includes nearly 30,000 cultural and natural science objects that are utilized in programs, exhibitions, and media.