Coney Island Museum

Edification value 3/5
Entertainment value 3/5
Should you go? 4/5
Time spent 52 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned I liked three bumper cars on display, dating from (from left to right) the 1950s, the 1930s, and the 1980s. They demonstrate that if a technology is sufficiently perfect, it won’t change much over time.

Coney Island Museum, Brooklyn
Evolution of Bumper Cars

It often goes overlooked, but New York, like Venice, is a city of islands. And not just the obvious Manhattan, Staten, and Long.  This project has taken me to many of the city’s lesser islands, including City, Governor’sLiberty, and Ellis.  There’s no museum on Roosevelt Island, I note. But now, near the end of my journey, I’ve gone to Coney.

Coney Island Museum
The View From the Museum

Coney Island. Iconic playland for New York City, and thanks to twentieth century mass media, for the entire country.  Maybe the world.  Slightly tawdry, slightly tacky, entirely fun and open to one and all, the very name evokes the image of hot summer days, boardwalks, hot dogs, and a thousand and one sticky, sunburned delights.

Coney Island still exists, of course.  And indeed, it’s a darn sight better today than it was during its nadir in the 1960s, which saw the historic amusement parks shut down.  But just going there on a nice spring or summer day may not convey just what Coney Island was all about — and why it retains such an iconic presence in the national imagination.  To explore that, there is– surprise!– a museum.

The Coney Island Museum

The Coney Island Museum occupies the second floor of a landmarked, century-old, Spanish Revival-style building on Coney Island’s main drag of Ocean Avenue.  The first floor includes a bar, gift shop, and the Coney Island Freak Show, if you’re into people with unusual bodies and/or talents.

Coney Island Museum, Brooklyn

The museum has a decently sized space, featuring a variety of photographs and artifacts from Old Coney, as well as good, descriptive wall texts telling the stories of the main amusement parks: Sea Lion Park, Dreamland, Steeplechase Park, and Luna Park. 

Different displays focus on various Coney Island activities:  games, sideshows, food, and bathing in the sea.  That latter is particularly interesting, including displays of bathing tickets, vintage, rentable, and likely very itchy, bathing suits (sterilized between wears, but still… ew), and a whole bunch of locker keys for storing your land stuff. 

Coney Island Museum, Brooklyn

The museum also tells the suitably colorful story of the building itself, which started as a restaurant, then became a strip club for a while, then a video game arcade.

And a final room relates the tale of Coney Island, U.S.A.  That’s the not-for-profit that has helped revive and restore the place and make sure it’s not lost forever. It’s also the group that hosts the fun, glittery, scaly Mermaid Parade.

A video projection over a small stage (which for all I knew once hosted lovely ladies undressing) runs a loop of vintage newsreels featuring Coney Island, “the dynamic fun land of a nation” (to quote one travel flick’s phrase).

Coney Island Museum, Brooklyn

Getting to Coney — And What You Saw There

My favorite exhibit at the Coney Island Museum was a collaboration with the terrific New York Transit Museum. It explains just how people got to the island, back in the day. There’s not much on display, mainly a large annotated map on the wall. And yet it’s a fascinating close-up look at how, as happened throughout the city, changes to transit changed accessibility and the demographic make up of visitors.

The museum also reviews the attractions at Coney Island, which included some things that definitely wouldn’t fly today.  I can’t understand the early 20th century fascination with stereotypical ethnography, in the sense of people wanting to gawk at the population of the Igorrote village (a native culture from Luzon in the Philippines) that took up 12 acres of Luna Park. I wonder how those folks lived, and what they made of their time as an exhibit in New York City.

And then there’s the Johnstown Flood cyclorama spectacle, popular from 1902 to 1905.  It’s astonishing that they turned a vast, recent natural disaster (from 1899; over 2,000 people died!) into a popular attraction — like, imagine “Katrina:  The Ride” today.  Then again, maybe American culture hasn’t changed that much.

Coney Island Museum, Brooklyn
Johnstown Flood

Should You Visit the Coney Island Museum?

I went into the Coney Island Museum expecting schlocky fun, and I left surprised by just how interesting I found the story.  It’s not a big museum, and it must omit a ton of stuff — Coney Island was practically a world unto itself, a city within the city.  But the story it does tell, it tells really well.

Coney Island Museum, BrooklynWhat finally ended Coney Island’s metaphorical day in the sun?  One of the museum volunteers described it as “the three ‘A’s’: the automobile, the airplane, and air conditioning.”  Curse you, technology! 

Coney Island was and is an important part of American culture. And Coney served working- and middle-class folk, not the elite.  As a result, the Coney Island Museum offers a rare glimpse into ordinary New Yorkers’ lives. Or at least how ordinary New Yorkers escaped from their ordinary lives.  In that it’s a great counterpoint to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum.

Coney Island Museum, Brooklyn

It’s a fine museum, and visiting it provides a great excuse to stroll the Boardwalk, ride the Cyclone, see a ball game, drink vodka at a Russian bar, eat a hot dog, and experience any of the other myriad large or small delights that today’s Coney Island has to offer.  It’s not the heyday, but it’s still pretty fun.

For Reference:

Address 1208 Surf Avenue, Brooklyn
Cost  General Admission: $5
Other Relevant Links