Brooklyn Historical Society

UPDATE APRIL 2021: In 2020, the Brooklyn Historical Society merged with the Brooklyn Public Library to create the Center for Brooklyn History. Not sure what that’s going to mean for the institution going forward; currently the building is only open to pick up library books.

Edification value  3/5
Entertainment value  3/5
Should you go?  3/5
Time spent 65 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned A quote from Truman  Capote, Brooklyn Heights resident in 1958:  “Often a week passes without my ‘going into town,’ or ‘crossing the bridge,’ as neighbors call a trip to Manhattan.  Mystified friends, suspecting provincial stagnation, inquire, ‘But what do you DO over there?'”

Brooklyn Historical Society Entrance

The Brooklyn Historical Society started its life as the Long Island Historical Society back in 1863, as Brooklyn was booming.  Today it still resides in the LIHS’s  absolutely beautiful, landmarked, red brick building in Brooklyn Heights, opened in 1881.  For a large building, the two floors of exhibit spaces are surprisingly intimate, making it easy to visit the whole thing in an hour or so.

Potential visitors should know that the society does not tell the whole Brooklyn story.  You’d get a better sense of Brooklyn’s timeline at BLDG 92. When I went the Historical Society offered three exhibits:  Brooklyn abolitionists, Jackie Robinson’s career, and recently rediscovered photos of late 1950s Brooklyn.

Exhibition Roundup

The abolition show was beautifully designed and laid out, with projections and suspended floating pictures dividing up the space. These and some interactive elements helped make it engaging even though it was comprised mainly of wall texts and reproduced historic images rather than artifacts. The exhibit started by  reinforcing the surprising fact of how widespread slave ownership was in revolutionary-era Brooklyn, which I learned at the Old Stone House. It then pivots to celebrate the 19th century religious and intellectual Brooklynites who argued for abolition.

The Jackie Robinson exhibit, too, consisted largely of wall texts and a timeline, although it did feature a case of Robinsoniana in the middle of the room.  I found it educational, but dry. City Reliquary‘s shrine to Jackie Robinson conveyed the heartfelt relationship between the man and the borough much better. 

Jackie Robinson at the Brooklyn Historical Society

Finally, “Truman Capote’s Brooklyn: The Lost Photographs of David Attie,” was a terrific small exhibit.  David Attie, a young photographer, received a commission to take pictures of Brooklyn to accompany a magazine piece Truman Capote was writing about his life there.  He spent a day or two wandering around the borough with Capote as his guide and interpreter. Assignment done, years passed, and everyone assumed the unused pictures long gone until Attie’s son stumbled upon the negatives and even some prints.  They constitute a splendid snapshot of a Brooklyn long, long gone, from a pair of very distinctive perspectives. And they’re all the better for being so fresh — many not seen since Attie took them.

David Attie, by the way, was the husband of Dotty Attie, one of the co-founders of A.I.R. Gallery— eventually all museums connect!

That Building!

The Brooklyn Historical Society’s gorgeousness struck me throughout — a very loving restoration must have happened here in the not-too-distant past.  The light fixtures!  The woodwork!  The stained glass skylight! And each floor had different humorously old-timey logos indicating where the gents and ladies rooms were.  A small thing, but I appreciated it.

Brooklyn Historical Society

In addition to the exhibit spaces, the Society houses the yet-again stunningly beautiful Othmer Library. When I visited, it contained significant amounts of dark, polished woodwork, a studious hush, and lots and lots of historical documents.  One of the librarians told me that many people use it for genealogical research. And for the first time in my life, I was sad I have no Brooklyn ancestry.

Othmer Library, Brooklyn Historical Society
Othmer Library, Brooklyn Historical Society

In addition to exhibits, the Brooklyn Historical Society programs talks ranging from real estate to fishing to hip hop.  And has a suitably beautiful space for that, too.  It also just opened a small branch in DUMBO, so there’s more to see beyond the Pierrepont Street mother ship.Brooklyn Historical Society

Worth the Trip?

The Brooklyn Historical Society has one of the loveliest spaces of any  museum I’ve visited.  And I trust its curators to organize excellent exhibitions.  That said, two of the three shows were mainly wall-text-and-pictures exhibits–albeit well done examples of the style.  If you’re a Brooklynite of any stripe (birth, residence, aspiration, or just in your heart), go for sure.  Otherwise check what they’re showing beforehand, and decide based on your interest level.

For Reference:

Address 128 Pierrepont Street (corner of Clinton Street), Brooklyn
Cost  General Admission:  $10
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