It Happened In Brooklyn

Review

of an Exhibition

by Holly Barton

Published on January 04, 2009, Modified on August 27, 2009

  • Description:

    Founded in 1863, the Brooklyn Historical Society is dedicated to preserving Brooklyn’s 400-year history and works to connect that history to today’s diverse communities in a tangible, relevant and meaningful way. The institution is located in a landmarked building in Brooklyn Heights designed by George B. Post in 1881. Upon stepping into the building through the terra cotta archways and entering the foyer, it is evident that the Brooklyn Historical Society is indeed dedicated to that 400-year history. Immediately you notice books pertaining to Brooklyn’s history, its neighborhoods, and its inhabitants and historical maps and paintings.

    Stepping off the elevator on the third floor and into the small room to the right, I entered an exhibition called It Happened in Brooklyn. Supported by artifacts from the Brooklyn Historical Society’s permanent collection, It Happened In Brooklyn explores important moments in history and the role that Brooklyn played in them. The exhibition is organized chronologically by six periods of American History: Native Americans, Explorers and Settlers; Colonial Brooklyn; Revolutionary War; Abolition and the Civil War; Immigration and Migration; and World War II and the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Correlating with these six themes, the exhibition text and artifacts within each section line the walls of the room, with each section framed by a tilted square painted on the wall in a different color. In the center of the room on the floor is a large map of Brooklyn on which graphics and a corresponding key indicate when particular neighborhoods played an important role during one of the six periods. For example Gowanus was highlighted to represent the Colonial Brooklyn period and the waterfront represented WWII. However, for all playful purposes, two small children in the exhibition found it exciting to challenge one another to jump from Coney Island to Brooklyn Heights in one leap. (And they did it!)

    The exhibition begins by displaying a 3,000-5,000 year old arrowhead possibly used by the Lenape, a tribe that inhabited Brooklyn until the Dutch purchased the land and settled around Gowanus Bay in 1636. Colonial Brooklyn explores the lives of the farmers of now-famous names (Lefferts, Wykoff, Ditmas, and Sackett) who settled Brooklyn before the British came to power. An 1805 Bill of Sale between Johannes Ditmas and Hendrick and Andrew Suydam documents the sale of a slave named Nan for 60 pounds. Artifacts such as a powder horn used in the Battle of Brooklyn, one of the bloodiest battles of the Revolutionary War, and the classic painting of George Washington titled “Athenaeum,” (although this is a copy of the famous Gilbert Stuart painting by James K. Frothingham), highlight the exhibition’s section on the Revolutionary War. It Happened In Brooklyn explores the abolitionist movement and the Civil War with photos of and admittance tickets to Sanitary Fairs, which coordinated efforts of women who wanted to support the federal army with funds and supplies during the Civil War. Because of its proximity to Ellis Island and Manhattan, Brooklyn’s immigration story mirrors some of the well-known stories of immigration to America: the 1840s and 1850s saw German and Irish immigrants; the late 1800s saw Italian and Jewish immigrants; the migration of African Americans from the south in search of jobs and opportunity during World War I is represented; and the first half of the 20th century noticed a large influx of West Indian immigrants. It was particularly interesting to compare a 1921 map of Brooklyn neighborhoods by ethnicity to known ethnic affiliations today. The final period covered in It Happened In Brooklyn is World War II and the role that the Brooklyn Navy Yard, opened in 1801, had in it. Over 70,000 workers helped to build the USS Iowa, USS Missouri and USS Arizona, which was destroyed at Pearl Harbor. Continuing a slight focus on the women of Brooklyn’s history that is evident throughout this exhibition, there is also mention that the Brooklyn Navy Yard is the birthplace of Rosie the Riveter. Photos of workers, a welder’s helmet, machinist tools and overalls are all artifacts that represent the essential role Brooklyn had in World War II.

    Because the themes of It Happened in Brooklyn chronologically follow well-known events of American history, the exhibition’s organization and flow of ideas is comfortable and effective. The amount of content is appropriate and not overwhelming for the average visitor. The audience of this exhibition is an average adult learner, as the text is at an adult eye-level and the lack of touchable, hands-on exhibits indicates that children were a small consideration. It Happened In Brooklyn effectively supports the institution’s mission to tell the history of Brooklyn, and it does so in a proud, bold, unpretentious way, much like the personalities of today’s Brooklynites.

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