The roots of the Brooklyn Museum extend back to the 1823 founding by Augustus Graham of the Brooklyn Apprentices' Library in Brooklyn Heights. The Library moved into the Brooklyn Lyceum building on Washington Street in 1841. Two years later the institutions merged to form the Brooklyn Institute, which offered exhibitions of painting and sculpture and lectures on diverse subjects. In 1890, under its director Franklin Hooper, Institute leaders reorganized as the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences and began planning the Brooklyn Museum. The museum remained a subdivision of the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences, along with the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and the Brooklyn Children's Museum until the 1970s when all became independent.
Opened in 1897, the Brooklyn Museum building is a steel frame structure encased in classical masonry, designed by the famous architectural firm of McKim, Mead, and White and built by the Carlin Construction Company. The initial design for the Brooklyn Museum was four times as large as the actualized version; actualized plans reflect a compromise to the specifications of the New York City government. Daniel Chester French, the noted sculptor of the Lincoln Memorial, was the principal designer of the pediment sculptures and the monolithic 12.5-foot (3.8 m) figures along the cornice. The figures were created by 11 sculptors and carved by the Piccirilli Brothers. French also designed the two allegorical figures Brooklyn and Manhattan currently flanking the museum's entrance, created in 1916 for the Brooklyn approach to the Manhattan Bridge, relocated to the museum in 1963.
By 1920, the New York City Subway reached the museum with a subway station; this greatly improved access to the once-isolated museum from Manhattan and other outer boroughs.
The Brooklyn Institute's director Franklin Hooper was the museum's first director, succeeded by William Henry Fox who served from 1914 to 1934. He was followed by Philip Newell Youtz (1934–1938), Laurance Page Roberts (1939–1946), Isabel Spaulding Roberts (1943–1946), Charles Nagel, Jr. (1946–1955), and Edgar Craig Schenck (1955–1959).
Thomas S. Buechner became the museum's director in 1960, making him one of the youngest directors in the country. Buechner oversaw a major transformation in the way the museum displayed art and brought some one thousand works that had languished in the museum's archives and put them on display. Buechner played a pivotal role in rescuing the Daniel Chester French sculptures from destruction due to an expansion project at the Manhattan Bridge in the 1960s.
Duncan F. Cameron held the post from 1971 to 1973, with Michael Botwinick succeeding him (1974–1982) and Linda S. Ferber acting director for part of 1983 until Robert T. Buck became director in 1983 and served until 1996.
The Brooklyn Museum changed its name to Brooklyn Museum of Art in 1997, shortly before the start of Arnold L. Lehman's term as director. On March 12, 2004, the museum announced that it would revert to its previous name. In April 2004, the museum opened the James Polshek-designed entrance pavilion on the Eastern Parkway façade. In September 2014, Lehman announced that he was planning to retire around June 2015. In May 2015, Creative Time president and artistic director Anne Pasternak was named the museum's next director; she assumed the position on September 1, 2015.