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Brooklyn Historical Society: A Home Away from Home

Published on
November 6

            Like many of us in the Columbia community, New York is not where I think of as home. Though I love living, working and studying here, I still feel stronger ties to my former small-town homes in New Jersey and New Hampshire. Even with my growing mastery of the subway system and ever-expanding mental catalog of theatres, restaurants, shops and museums, New York still seems so insurmountably huge to ever be able to fill the gap left by memories of smaller, quieter communities. My trip to the Brooklyn Historical Society today, however, may have proved me wrong about this.

            The Brooklyn Historical Society, one of Columbia University’s Passport to Museum partners, is located in a beautiful historic landmark building not far off of the Borough Hall subway stop. It features a modest permanent collection of photos, artifacts and ephemera from Brooklyn’s past, several ever-changing exhibitions, and an impressive library. Each exhibit space is quite small; the first exhibit I saw was centered around only one item – an authentic copy of the Emancipation Proclamation (one of less than thirty in the world) signed by Abraham Lincoln himself. This small corner of the museum encouraged visitors to view this historic document as one that is still very much alive and important in a world that continues to be plagued with discrimination, intolerance and inequality for many minorities.

            Downstairs from the Emancipation Proclamation was another rotating exhibit, “Landmarks of New York.” This exhibit featured dozens of black and white photos of buildings, structures and outdoor environments throughout the entirety of New York City that have been designated as landmarks and thus protected from destruction. As someone who knows little about New York, I had never heard of many of the landmark buildings before. However, I was quickly drawn to photos and descriptions of many places that were familiar to me: Carnegie Hall, Central Park, Rockefeller Center, and even some places right in my own “backyard” like Morningside Park and Riverside Church. There are over 30,000 protected landmarks in New York City, and it was interesting to see how varied each landmark is, as well as how ubiquitous they are throughout the city. No matter where you are in New York City, you are never far away from a preserved piece of history.

            The third floor of the museum featured two small galleries, each with a different exhibit. The first, “Documenting Sandy,” was perhaps the most powerful of any of the exhibits I saw. It features large photographs depicting the aftermath of the storm in Brooklyn, presented on walls graffitied with phrases like “Didn’t see this coming” and “Global Warming is here.” The exhibit displays amateur photos alongside professional photos, emphasizing the storm’s impact on an entire community. The pictures themselves emphasize this diversity: as an informational panel at the exhibit described, each photo depicts a different type of response to the storm, including “awe, derision, humor, resolve, despair, patience, community action, or passive observation.” The photos were all personal, and all powerful, showing how even the largest borough in New York City is small in comparison to the might of Nature.

            The final exhibit gallery, “Inventing Brooklyn,” echoed the museum’s permanent collection in its display of remembrances from Brooklyn’s history. Brooklyn’s culturally diverse heritage has helped to shape its growth and make it a major center for creativity and innovation. As I looked through the museum’s collection (record books from old stores, tickets to local concerts, Coney Island advertisements, posters of movies filmed in the borough, among many other things) I began to see Brooklyn not as the largest borough of an incredibly large city, but as a close-knit, eclectic and vibrant community, not unlike that of the small towns I remember so fondly. Even in a city as large as this, finding a strong community like the one depicted in the Brooklyn Historical Society can go a long way to making you feel right at home.