The Brooklyn Historical Society connects the past to the present and makes the vibrant history of Brooklyn tangible, relevant and meaningful for today’s diverse communities, and for generations to come. Founded in 1863, the Brooklyn Historical Society is a nationally recognized urban history center dedicated to preserving and encouraging the study of Brooklyn’s extraordinary 400-year history. Located in Brooklyn Heights and housed in a magnificent landmark building designed by George Post and opened in 1881, today’s BHS is a cultural hub for civic dialogue, thoughtful engagement and community outreach.
Internship Spring 2013
Shannon Elliott: Interning at Brooklyn Historical Society has been truly rewarding. Working in the education department, I gained a lot of first-hand experience working with kids, as most of my responsibilities involved leading tours and working directly with school groups. While BHS provides tours for all grade levels, the vast majority of the children I worked with are in second, fourth, and fifth grade. There is no question that there are many challenges and frustrations that come with working with children, but the rewards always far outweigh the bad days. It is an incredibly gratifying experience to see even just one child that is really curious about what you are teaching or the objects you are showing them.
My main responsibility as an intern was to lead the school tours. Many of these took place at Brooklyn Historical Society in the Inventing Brooklyn exhibit. I learned and led several different tours for this exhibit, ranging from colonial Brooklyn and the Civil War to communities in Brooklyn. In addition to the tours we give at the building, they also run a Brooklyn Bridge school program, which requires classes to participate in an classroom lesson as well as a two-hour walking tour of the bridge. The in-class sessions provided me with the most independence because I traveled by myself to different neighborhoods in Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens to teach the lessons at the schools. The accompanying Brooklyn Bridge walking tour was an enjoyable part of my job because it was a chance to be outside, and often the kids were much more excited and engaged when they were walking and interacting with the bridge itself. However, walking 30 second graders across the very crowded bridge was often just as stressful as it was enjoyable.
Since many of the tours at the museum focused on early life in Brooklyn, the topic of slavery was a crucial part of most of the tours. Teaching children about the complicated race relations that existed in New York throughout the antebellum period is extremely difficult and requires tremendous thought and effort to make sure it is presented in an honest way, while still being sensitive to their age. The In Pursuit of Freedom exhibit that will be opening in the fall will focus even more attention on issues of enslavement/freedom and the abolitionism movement in Brooklyn. My final project for my internship was to put together an Educator’s Manual to accompany the exhibit that will be given to their educators before leading tours of the exhibit. Most of my work for this project involved extensive research in different education journals and articles that discuss the most effective ways to teach slavery to children of all ages. The manual consists of several of these articles, as well as a bibliography of suggested further reading, lesson plans developed to accompany the exhibit, tour outlines, an exhibit overview, and a section I wrote about the importance of exposing children to the topic in an honest and revealing manner.
Having the responsibility and independence to work on this project and to lead the tours on my own made me feel like an integral part of the team at Brooklyn Historical Society and provided me with an active experience that would be hard to find elsewhere.
Internship Spring 2011
Brendan Dolan : Working under Sady Sullivan, Director of Oral History, digitizing and describing interviews collected in 1994 to document Brooklyn’s West Indian Day parade.
I spent the past semester at the Brooklyn Historical Society digitizing oral histories and researching methods to facilitate their access within the context of an archival finding aid. The thirty-seven oral histories were conducted from 1993 to 1995 as part of a larger project to document the Carnival that takes place each year on Eastern Parkway over Labor Day weekend. The documentation project was a joint effort between the Brooklyn Historical Society, the Brooklyn Museum and the West Indian American Day Carnival Association (WIADCA), the committee that has organized the parade since its 1967 move from Harlem to Brooklyn. The oral histories supplement a significant collection of photographs, primary source materials and research materials, which culminated in a museum exhibit in 1994. Over the ensuing years, the collection was misplaced only to resurface this past year enabling NYU program member Margaret Fraser to create a finding aid using the Archivists’ Toolkit last semester.
The interviews cover the spectrum of Carnival participants from high level organizers such as Carlos Lezama and Joyce Quamina, to notable musicians such as Val Adams and Kelvin “Duke” Pope, to costume designers, wire benders, food vendors, youthful steel pan musicians to mere spectators. Under the guidance of BHS Oral History Director Sady Sullivan the mostly hour-long interviews were digitized using Pro Tools and saved in three locations in both AIFF and MP3 formats.
While in the short term the interviews will be accessible on site at the BHS’ oral history station in the historic Othmer Library, I used my time during my internship to investigate the possibility of on-line access to the interviews. Many repositories with oral history projects provide on-line access to their collections, usually within the context of a freestanding exhibit showcasing some thematic topic. From my perspective, I feel that this sort of presentation too often separates the materials from its context, the very thing that separates archives apart from other types of repositories.
I feel that a better solution would be to provide access to the audio materials straight from a finding aid’s container list. Surprisingly there are few precedents for this sort of access, although after much digging I did come across the finding aid for the Guggenheim’s Reel-to-Reel collection, which is a hopeful step forward. The next goal is to implement this idea without using Flash technology, which while pretty has many drawbacks. I would welcome any suggestions in the comments below because I would love to see this sort of access become a reality.
Hester Goodwin: Working with the education department, leading school groups on tours and helping with other projects as needed.
“At the Foot of Hicks Street: An Artist’s View of Red Hook” This spring, as part of the Archives and Public History program, I was an Education intern at Brooklyn Historical Society. As part of the internship, students pick a little-noticed object on display, research it, and do a presentation for the whole staff during the semester. This helps keep items in the collection from becoming just part of the backdrop, which can be an occupational hazard for museum employees.
I researched a painting which hangs in the lobby at BHS, but is often overlooked: At the Foot of Hicks Street, painted by John Mackie Falconer in 1877. Falconer was born in 1820 in Edinburgh, Scotland, but immigrated to New York in 1836, where he became active in the art community. Falconer is known for his paintings of buildings in varying states of ruin, with At the Foot of Hicks Street being a prime example.
The painting probably shows a makeshift community sometimes known as “Tinkerville,” located in what is now Red Hook, Brooklyn. During the early 19th century, the area was populated by jacks-of-all-trades, and was known as a disreputable spot. In the 1840s, developments in shipping and industry led to increased traffic in nearby Gowanus Bay. The swampy land under Tinkerville was filled in, and its residents were evicted to make way for docks and the Erie Basin. As At the Foot of Hicks Street was painted in 1877, Falconer may have worked from memory or earlier sketches, or just imagined how the area might have looked. Today, the “foot of Hicks Street” is buried beneath the Red Hook Recreation Center, adjacent to the Brooklyn Ikea store.
Brooklyn Historical Society, Red Hook-Gowanus Neighborhood History Guide. Brooklyn, NY: Brooklyn Historical Society, 2000.
“Brooklyn Before the Bridge: American Paintings from the Long Island Historical Society,” Exhibition catalog, Brooklyn Museum, 1982.
Attribution: John Mackie Falconer, “At the Foot of Hicks Street,” 1877. Brooklyn Historical Society Collection. Photo by Hester Goodwin.