Historical societies were created to keep the past safe. To protect records against the ravages of time and to preserve the maps, deeds, documents, paintings, photos and ephemera that historians use to create a narrative about who we are and where we’ve been.
But historical societies have also helped to preserve a hierarchy, by determining what was worthy of saving and commemorating, which for too long was limited to the accomplishments of the wealthy and white.
Thankfully, this approach to history has been reexamined in recent decades. And the Brooklyn Historical Society (BHS) in particular seems to be enthusiastically embracing a more thoughtful and inclusive use of the collections in its care.
BHS has proven very open to “turning history artfully and energetically on its head,” as President Deborah Schwartz says. It has thrown open its doors not just to historians — but to artists, who bring a somewhat more irreverent eye to framing the past.
BHS’s most ambitious effort to date in this regard opened last Wednesday. Artist & Artifact is the result of 10 contemporary artists delving into BHS’s archives “for hours and hours and hours” in order to create a piece inspired by what they found.
The artists — a sculptor, two photographers, two writers, a musician, a comic book artist, a painter and two conceptual artists — were chosen from more than 300 applicants. The list was whittled down to 10 with the help of BRIC | Arts | Media | Bklyn contemporary art gallery, which collaborated with BHS on the show. The pieces are spread throughout the lobby of BHS’s historic Pierrepont Street building and BRIC’s gallery nearby. Accompanying the pieces are the historic objects and stories that inspired them.
“The work stands on its own, but when you engage the work with the historical material we put out with it, there is a depth there that we’ve just been enchanted by,” Schwartz said.
Several of the artists were drawn to the issue of race. Sculptor Meredith Bergmann cast an eye toward the Brooklyn Historical Society’s building itself, questioning the practice of solely commemorating white men in our civic spaces. The beautiful 1881 building is ornamented with terracotta busts of male European historical figures, such as Columbus, Shakespeare and Michelangelo, accented with indigenous American plants, such as corn.
Bergmann created a sculpture mimicking the exact style of these busts, but used a poignantly different subject — a slave by the name of Sally Maria Diggs. Diggs (also known as “Pinky”) was the subject of a mock slave auction performed by the famous abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher in 1860 at Plymouth Church in Brooklyn Heights.
The auction, which in fact raised money to buy Pinky her freedom, gained nationwide attention at the time and helped illuminate the inhumanity of slavery. Bergmann’s bust of Pinky (pictured at top) is accented with poison ivy, because “it’s infectious and insidious like racism…and it affects the skin,” Bergmann explained.
Photographer Nora Herting specializes in portraiture, and poured over boxes and boxes of portraits brought out by BHS photo archivist Julie May.
“What struck me was what I didn’t find, which was diversity,” said Herting. “When the historical society was founded, it was a private club, so a lot of the images were of upper-class New Englanders. I decided I would populate the archives, so in the future people looking through would find a more diverse group,” Herting said in 2009.
So she set up mini outdoor portrait studios in eight public parks throughout Brooklyn and made portraits of hundreds of Brooklynites, for free, which are now included in the portrait collection, and which are on display in postcard-sized prints at BRIC’s gallery.
Musician Daniel José Older wrote a contemporary opera Murder in Old Crow Hill, about a young girl who is accused of murdering a police officer in 19th century Brooklyn and sent to prison at the Kings County Penitentiary, a real institution that was built in Crown Heights in 1846.
It’s not a true story, Older explained, but was “pieced together from a few different stories in the 1880s about police violence, squatters’ funerals, riots and jailbreaks” in the Crown Heights neighborhood, which was then known as Crow Hill. (This name may have been a derogatory reference to the African Americans who made their home there, or to the inmates of the penitentiary.)
“There were a lot of things going on then that still speak to what goes on now,” Older says, referring to recurring racial tensions in the gentrifying neighborhood. The 45-minute piece was performed and recorded at BHS on Oct. 28.
Artist Terry Adkins looked at Brooklyn city directories from the 1830s, ’40s and ’50s, which included such information as residents’ addresses and occupations. Next to African American names there would be asterisks.
Adkins crafted a new directory; a large black book containing only the names of those asterisked African Americans. In Adkins’ book, “these names are given new historic weight and indeed are ennobled,” writes Elizabeth Ferrer, BRIC’s director of contemporary art, in an essay she wrote to accompany Artist & Artifact.
Not all of Artist & Artifact’s pieces deal with race.
In the hands of comic book artist Andrés Vera Martinez, one of BHS’s archival treasures becomes more accessible to modern times: The illustrated travel diary of Jasper Danckaerts, who traveled to New York in the late 1600s, is adapted into a comic book (see example page below).
“I focused on the parts that [Danckaerts] actually explores Brooklyn. I stuck with the highlights I thought people would be interested in, like the whales in the East River, the giant oysters, and the natives,” said Martinez.
“The language makes it more accessible to modern times. It’s kind of for all ages … As opposed to being locked up somewhere and someone has to go get it and wear gloves so that people can look at it.”
Artist Kristin Posehn was also inspired by Brooklyn’s Dutch past, and created a sculptural piece in reference to the few remaining Dutch houses in Brooklyn — rare physical reminders of these early European settlers, whose legacies are now nearly invisible.
Also inspired by the structural environment of Brooklyn, photographer Stanley Greenberg captured close-up photographs of the Culver Viaduct, the part of the subway track on the F and G lines that rises above ground to cross over the Gowanus canal.
The two writers who contributed to Artist & Artifact, novelist Elizabeth Gaffney and poet/playwright Michael Schwartz, will do readings at BHS on Saturday, Nov. 20 at 2 p.m. Gaffney’s book The End of the Age of Wonder is set in Brooklyn Heights between the end of WWII and the Vietnam war, following the lives of two families, one black and one white. From the BHS archives, she used items such as photos, newspaper clippings, bus schedules and personal letters from people that lived through that period to craft the story, which is being published by Random House in 2011.
Schwartz wrote a collection of works about Coney Island, where he grew up.
There will also be an artist panel and gallery talk on Tuesday, Nov. 30 at 6 p.m. at BHS (128 Pierrepont St.) to accompany the exhibit. Artist & Artifact will be on display until Dec. 17, 2010.