A shore thing: Uncovering the history of Brooklyn’s waterfront

A shore thing: Uncovering the history of Brooklyn’s waterfront
Photo by Caleb Caldwell

It’s the coast with the most!

Sail back to the Brooklyn waterfront of more than 100 years ago with a new exhibit at the Brooklyn Historical Society’s Dumbo location. “Waterfront,” which opened earlier this month, takes visitors on a tour of life along the borough’s coastline during the 19th and early 20th centuries, offering a series of vignettes that together explain the vital role of the area to America’s history, said the show’s curator.

“We wanted to capture the intimacy of experiences of people living and remaking the waterfront — we did a ton of research about the people who lived here, who worked here, and in some cases, who died here,” said Julie Golia. “We wanted people to understand the importance of the waterfront in the making of the American economy and American culture.”

The Dumbo branch of the Brooklyn Historical Society is on the second floor of Empire Stores, a building that was an active warehouse in the 1860s, storing coffee, sugar, animal hides, and other popular goods that helped shape the local economy. A floor-to-ceiling installation features a collection artifacts from the warehouse days, such as pie tins and bottles, as well as from an archeological dig into the landfill under the warehouse, said Golia.

Take a look: The Waterfront exhibit’s wall about women workers.
Photo by Caleb Caldwell

“We wanted to give life to this in a very artistic way,” she said. “It was basically stuffed with garbage that can tell us really fascinating, tantalizing things about what life for people in the 19th century.”

The show also highlights the history of women workers, especially women of color, whose stories have often been forgotten in favor of longshoreman and other traditionally male seaside occupations, said Golia.

“We wanted to do homage to generations of women workers along the waterfront,” she said. “I think there’s this association of work along the waterfront being a male experience but we wanted to tell it from a gendered experience as well — women have worked in factories for centuries, often underpaid, often with very little support, and those stories are often forgotten and marginalized.”

Other features include a wall packed with oyster shells, a video installation about rising sea levels, a giant image of the city of Brooklyn in 1876, and an interactive video that lets visitors insert themselves into historical paintings and photos, which has been a particular hit with young museum-goers, said Golia.

Fun learning: Kids can create their own coastline with this magnetic wall.
Photo by Caleb Caldwell

“It’s been so much fun to see people experience it, interact with it, and to think about history, and also to see themselves in history,” she said. “Which is actually really what we want — for people to learn history, but also see their own role and agency in history.”

The curator hopes the exhibit will give visitors a new understanding of the area they walked through to get there.

“We’re hoping here in the gallery people will be able to get the tools to then go out and look at the neighborhood with completely different eyes,” said Golia.

“Waterfront” at the Brooklyn Historical Society Dumbo (55 Water St. between Main and Old Dock streets in Dumbo). Open Tue–Thu, 11 am–6 pm; Fri, Sat, 11 am–8 pm; Sun, 11 am–6 pm. $10 suggested donation.

Oh shucks!: A wall packed with oyster shells.
Photo by Caleb Caldwell

Reach reporter Julianne Cuba at (718) 260–4577 or by e-mail at jcuba@cnglocal.com. Follow her on Twitter @julcuba.