Seeking to ‘democratize history,’ renovated Center for Brooklyn History reopens with new exhibit

center for brooklyn history
With a new exhibit and an extensive collection of books and other media, the Center for Brooklyn History reopened to the public on Thursday.
Photo courtesy of Gregg Richards/Brooklyn Public Library

A historic Pierrepont Street facade came back to life on Thursday, when the Center for Brooklyn history reopened its doors to visitors after months of extensive renovations on the first floor. A new exhibition, “Brooklyn Is…” celebrating the people and neighborhoods of the whole borough, is the crown jewel to mark the center’s new era.

Some of the most important moments about 157 years of Brooklyn’s history — the construction of the iconic Brooklyn Bridge, the opening of New York’s most famous cheesecake hub, Junior’s, and the life testimony of so many great talents that have come from Kings County — are documented in photos, videos, drawings, letters and books submitted by locals in the new exhibition. 

New Center of Brooklyn History
The renovated first floor is now open to visitors without an appointment for the first time. Photo courtesy of Gregg Richards/Brooklyn Public Library

“Today, as we launch the next chapter of the Center for Brooklyn History, we are not just reopening a building; we are reopening the door to our shared past, illuminating the path to our future, and welcoming every Brooklynite to contribute their voice to the ever-evolving story of our borough,” said Linda E. Johnson, President and CEO of the Brooklyn Public Library, in a statement. 

While the exhibit is extensive, it’s not yet complete — Brooklynites can send new photos and memories to be included online or in-person at a BPL branch. The Center hopes to “democratize” Brooklyn’s history by sharing the stories and experiences of people from all over the borough and all walks of life, said Heather Malin, director of the Center for Brooklyn History. 

The exhibition sits on the first floor, where a large foyer with couches and walls covered in large-format pictures of scenes from different streets now set the mood for local history enthusiasts and researchers as they enter the center. For the first time, visitors will be able to explore the Center and work or study there without making an appointment. 

Othmer library at the center for brooklyn history
Patrons can also explore the Othmer Library, where books and other resources are available with an appointment. Photo courtesy of Gregg Richards/Brooklyn Public Library

For those who want to stick around after they explore “Brooklyn Is…” there’s the Othmer Library, made up of two floors filled with antique wood floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, stained-glass windows and carved wooden columns. The library is filled with 5,700 artifacts, films, 1,200 audio recordings of interviews, 300 paintings, newspapers, 325,000 photos, 2,000 maps and 36,000 books that can be consulted by appointment. Onsite and remote guidance for those interested in researching family genealogy and neighborhood history is also available.

The first floor now also includes a shop of souvenirs intended for patrons to take Brooklyn’s memories home and preserve them. All proceeds will be used to support the Brooklyn Public Library. 

The center is set to host some of the BPL’s 65,000 free yearly programs with writers, thinkers, artists, and educators — from around the corner and around the world.

ribbon cutting at center for brooklyn history
Patrons, elected officials, and library workers celebrated the ribbon-cutting on Sept. 14. Photo courtesy of Gregg Richards/Brooklyn Public Library

“Learning about the past, and understanding its challenges and triumphs, does so much to affect the way we live,” said Dominique Jean-Louis, Chief Historian at the Center for Brooklyn History, in a statement. “It is our hope that through our extensive archives and connection to Brooklyn’s communities, we can use history to inspire change, further knowledge, and add richness to people’s daily lives. The Center for Brooklyn History welcomes any and everybody to join us in expanding our collection, using our archives for research, art, and storytelling, and connecting with one another.”

The Center for Brooklyn History at 128 Pierrepont St. in Brooklyn Heights is open weekly Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.