A group of Brooklyn high school students has spent the past three months tackling big questions about the borough’s history and identity.
They are members of the Brooklyn Historical Society’s Exhibition Laboratory (ExLab) after-school program, and they were responsible for curating an exhibit about the evolution of Brooklyn into the place we know today.
The result of their labor, “Inventing Brooklyn: People, Places and Progress,” opened last Thursday evening.
“Once a year we turn over the interpretive reins to students,” said Kate Fermoile, manager of special projects at the Brooklyn Historical Society (BHS). “This year they had a very difficult task, to curate an exhibit covering 400 years of Brooklyn history.”
The students hail from four local schools — Brooklyn Technical High School, Cobble Hill School of American Studies, The Packer Collegiate Institute and Saint Ann’s School. They worked with historians, exhibit designers and BHS staff to craft an exhibit that explains how Brooklyn has been shaped by its many layers of history.
The students chose objects from BHS’s collection that brought to life Brooklyn’s transformation from Native American homeland, to slave-owning colonial settlement, to immigrant destination, to the iconic, diverse locale we know today.
“It was great getting to choose every single piece that the viewers are going to see, and learning about what a complete museum exhibit should look like,” said Alex Viner, a junior at Brooklyn Tech. “And to see how Brooklyn evolved over time and to see that through these objects.”
What many of the students were most surprised to learn was that slavery had existed in Brooklyn, and to a large extent. “[Long Island] had the most slaves in the north,” said Brooklyn Tech junior Purti Parpek. “And even after slavery ended, if a person was African-American, they put an asterisk next to their names in these directories,” she said, pointing to a 19th century city directory on display with other objects in a portion of the exhibit dedicated to Brooklyn’s print media. Included also was a bounded volume of issues of the Long Island Star, Brooklyn’s first newspaper (1809-1863), and a framed front page of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle from May 24, 1883, the day the Brooklyn Bridge opened.
Brooklyn Tech junior Neil Alacha stood near a display about “Brooklyn at War,” which included a hand-sewn American flag made by a Brooklyn resident during the Civil War, as well as a musket and sword from the Revolutionary War that were excavated from the basement of a Brooklyn home, found near the remains of a soldier.
“I knew about the Battle of Brooklyn but I had no idea how important it was in the Revolution,” Alacha said of the August 1776 clash that was the first major battle of the Revolution. It was also the biggest in terms of the number of soldiers on the field.
Alacha also was interested in the letters written by Civil War soldiers, and noted that “the sense of immigrant culture was still prevalent. When people wrote home, often home was still Germany or some place, and that’s where they wanted to be. A sense of being an American didn’t develop until the 20th century.”
Francesca Soriano, a junior at Packer, was really impressed with Brooklyn’s diversity. “It was really interesting to see how many people have been here,” she said. “And to read about all the name changes [of roads and towns] and how those changed depending on who was here.”
On display were some early land deeds, such as that of John Lefferts — a reminder of where many of our street names came from — the early Dutch settlers, and that many of our neighborhood names are derived from Dutch town names, (Breukelen/Brooklyn, Boswyck/Bushwick, Vlackebos/Flatbush).
In addition to exploring Brooklyn’s evolving history, the exhibit looked at Brooklyn’s image and how it’s been reflected in the media. Acknowledging the borough’s most iconic elements, such as Brooklyn Bridge, Coney Island and the Dodgers, the students also chose to display movie posters of films shot in the borough, such as Moonstruck, It Happened in Brooklyn and Saturday Night Fever. There was also a video montage of movies and TV shows that depict the borough, as well as life-size cardboard cutouts of the characters Ralph Cramden and Ed Norton from the popular 1950s TV series, “The Honeymooners,” which was set in Bensonhurst.
Also on display was a bottle of the vodka “Absolute Brooklyn,” showing how advertisers have begun using Brooklyn in branding products.
“It was the people who really shaped Brooklyn, because people took so much pride in their borough,” said Christina Valdez, a senior at Cobble Hill School of American Studies. “We didn’t just make Brooklyn a borough, we made it a legend. Everyone uses the Brooklyn name to promote stuff. It makes me proud to be a Brooklynite.”
“Inventing Brooklyn: People, Places and Progress,” is on display on the third floor of the Brooklyn Historical Society, 128 Pierrepont St. For details on hours and admission, visit brooklynhistory.org.