Dec 28, 2015
From Bumper Cars to Torah Taxidermy: A Guide to 25 of Brooklyn’s Most Unusual Museums
With Channukah and Christmas firmly behind us and New Year’s Eve looming on the horizon, the next few days represent a glorious opportunity to get a lot of outside time. Lots of offices are closed [Ed. note: But never fear, the Internet is always open] and many relatives are still in town, so it’s a marvelous time for really getting out into this amazing borough of ours—not to mention these crazily, unreasonably warm temps we’re having. Museums are the perfect daytime exploration activity, but instead of heading to the (admittedly fabulous!) Brooklyn Museum for the umpteenth time, why no go a little farther afield? We’re excited to present 25 unusual and beguiling lesser-known Brooklyn museums, homes for everything from vintage Coney Island bumper cars to anthropomorphic taxidermy specimens to 4,000-year-old cuneiform tablets. And we’re presenting them in alphabetical order, because why not?
Brooklyn Children’s Museum
Working to engage kids of all ages, the Brooklyn Children’s Museum has an impressive permanent collection that includes 29,000 historic and artistic works, as well as living insects, sea creatures, and many other animals. There’s a Totally Tots room for the very littles, and a Sensory Room that’s particularly helpful for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. The vastly varied programming includes interactive learning and doing workshops for all age groups covering holidays, traditions, and cultures around the world, from the ancestral sky god of the Kwakkwak’wakw people to samulnori and seoljanggu, traditional Korean percussion-based performances.
145 Brooklyn Avenue, Crown Heights
Brooklyn Historical Society
BHS was founded in 1863 as the Long Island Historical Society by a group of families who could trace their Brooklyn roots to the 17th and 18th centuries, and who wanted to preserve the “natural, civil, literary, and ecclesiastical history” of New York. That collection of historical materials survives as BHS’s Othmer Library, which today comprises more than 33,000 books, 50,000 photographs, 2,000 maps, 8,000 artifacts, and much more. In addition, the BHS gallery hosts rotating exhibits about Brooklyn’s history and culture, from 200 Years of Ferries in Brooklyn to Brooklyn’s Black Churches to Counter/Culture: The Disappearing Faces of Brooklyn Storefronts.
128 Pierrepont Street, Downtown Brooklyn
Brooklyn Jazz Hall of Fame & Museum
The Brooklyn Jazz Hall of Fame & Museum is a project of the Central Brooklyn Jazz Consortium, a nonprofit started in 1999 to preserve Brooklyn’s rich jazz history. Hall of Fame inductees include Brooklyn-born and -bred jazz heavyweights Max Roach, Randy Westin, Cecil Payne, Lena Horne, Freddy Hubbard, and Eubei Blake, as well as “jazz shrines,” venues like Blue Coronet, Sistas’ Place, and Club La Marchal. The “museum without walls,” housed in a converted Bed-Stuy elementary school, holds an archival collection of jazz memorabilia, including instruments, biographies, and a Jazz Map of Brooklyn.
1958 Fulton Street, Bed-Stuy
by appointment (718-773-2252, ex 103 or firstname.lastname@example.org)
Brooklyn Navy Yard Center BLDG 92
Part of the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation, BLDG 92 opened in 2011 in a thoroughly renovated and modernized marine commandant’s residence that was built in 1857. The new building is fully LEED certified, a “model of clean industrial reuse.” It has exhibitions on the history of the Navy Yard as well as on designing its future, plus a rotating gallery featuring goods by the many local makers and artisans now renting space in the Yard. There are also factory tours offered regularly, by foot or by bike.
63 Flushing Avenue, Navy Yard
Brooklyn’s Other Museum of Brooklyn
We recently had a fascinating time hanging out with Scott Witter, B.O.M.B.’s founder, who calls himself “a collector with almost indiscriminate taste.” His collection is a marvelous hodgepodge, including delights like puppets rescued from a DUMBO dumpster, a concrete oculus window from an LIRR terminal, and horseshoe crab shells and weathered glass found on the beach. The 10-year-old museum, started in order to bring attention to the pending razing of the Navy Yard’s Admiral’s Row, is an attempt to preserve a few bits of Brooklyn’s history and ephemera, and is definitely worth a look.
109 Hall Street, Clinton Hill
The City Reliquary, everybody’s favorite quirky little museum, strives to tell the story of New York City through its seemingly mundane artifacts. The permanent collection ranges from an irradiated dime from the 1964 Worlds Fair to the original 2nd Avenue Deli sign, and rotating exhibits have shown a wide range of wonders, including collections of PEZ dispensers, photos of NYC lampposts, and a historical timeline of the Embee Sunshade Co., one of Williamsburg’s last remaining functional factories. The Reliquary is a paean to collectors of all strange stripes, and hosts talks, lectures, street fairs, concerts, and show & tell evenings all year long.
370 Metropolitan Avenue, Williamsburg
Coney Island Museum
Opened in 1985 in the boardwalk building where Nathan’s Hot Dogs now stands, the Coney Island Museum was founded to preserve and celebrate one of the strangest and most fascinating places in New York City (and, therefore, the world). The museum moved to its current location in 1996, and in the late 2000s, its founder Dick Zigun fought successfully for the building (and several others nearby) to be granted National Landmark status. The museum features a wide array of Coney arcana, from funhouse mirrors (great for selfies!) to old bumper cars to a 3D-printed scale model of the original Luna Park.
1208 Surf Avenue, Coney Island
El Museo de Los Sures
In 2012, Los Sures, a nonprofit advocacy group that has been working to nurture and sustain the South Williamsburg community since 1972, opened this museum in an ongoing effort to preserve the neighborhood’s unique history and culture. The first exhibit showcased photography of the Southside from the 1970s and 1980s, and for subsequent exhibits Los Sures has worked with individual artists and groups like the International Studio & Curatorial Program to present innovative, often interactive work. Currently Los Sures and students of Dr. Becky Amato at NYU Gallatin are putting together a project where students work one-on-one with Southside community members to present their individual and neighborhood stories, with a focus on the effects of gentrification. The exhibition resulting from this project will go up in May.
120 South 1st Street, Williamsburg
Enrico Caruso Museum of America
This private museum is in honor of one man, who is gushingly described on the museum’s website as “the world’s greatest tenor.” Enrico Caruso was wildly popular in his time; even Wikipedia considers him one of the first examples of a global media celebrity. The museum was started in 1990 by Aldo Mancusi, who inherited his love of Caruso—and more than 200 of his records—from his father, Everisto Mancusi. In addition to records, the museum features many of Caruso’s photos, letters, and personal effects, including his death mask. It also contains a 20-seat mini-theater, with chairs and décor donated from the old Metropolitan Opera, where visitors can watch films staring—you guessed it—Caruso.
1942 East 19th Street, Sheepshead Bay
Harbor Defense Museum
The Harbor Defense Museum, opened in 1980 and funded by the Defense Department, is the only military museum in New York City. Housed in a small fort (technically called a Caponier) within the larger grounds of Fort Hamilton Park, its focus is on the history of Fort Hamilton and the evolution of New York Harbor. On view are many war relics and artifacts, including uniforms, weapons, maps, and even a Confederate mine.
230 Sheridan Loop, Bay Ridge
This all-volunteer nonprofit boasts an impressive collection of the ephemera of social movements, such as posters, flyers, zines, photographs, T-shirts and buttons, and audio and video recordings. The museum has mounted 16 exhibits since it opened in 2011, from a graphic-art archive of Mexico’s Zapatistas to a multimedia exhibition of cultural materials produced by incarcerated people and their allies, which sought to “fundamentally recast the history of the prison-industrial complex.”
131 8th Street, #4, Gowanus
Jewish Children’s Museum
With a stated mission to foster tolerance and understanding between children of all faiths, the 50,000–square-foot Jewish Children’s Museum is a smorgasbord of interactive exhibitions and programming surrounding Jewish history, holidays, customs, and contemporary life. There’s a giant challah loaf for climbing around on and a child-size Kosher supermarket to “shop” at, plus exhibitions and games like “The Mount Sinai Experience” and Six Holes of Life mini-golf.
792 Eastern Parkway, Crown Heights
Lefferts Historic House
Dating back to the 18th century, the Lefferts Historic House is operated by the Prospect Park Alliance and features historic artifacts and period rooms, as well as traditional tools and toys. Visitors can participate in old-timey activities like candle-making and butter-churning.
452 Flatbush Avenue, Prospect Park
Living Torah Museum & Torah Animal World
“I believe if you touch history, history touches you,” Rabbi Shaul Shimon Deutsch, founder of these two conjoined Torah museums, told us over the phone. “This is the only place in the world where you can hold 2,000-year-old artifacts in your hand.” Open since 2002, the Living Torah Museum features an incredible collection of centuries-old items, including coins from the ancient city of Gebal, Assyrian victory goblets, a brick from the Palace of Nabbucadnezzer, and the oldest inscription of the Ten Commandments in the world. Next door, the Torah Animal Museum, open since 2007, features hundreds of taxidermied mammals, reptiles, birds, and fish, along with information about where each appears in the Old Testament. Call ahead for an appointment (877-752-6286), which includes a private tour by the museum’s founder.
1601 and 1605 41st Street, Boro Park
Founded in 1986 by husband-and-wife team William and Kathleen Laziza, the nonprofit Micro Museum, a “living art center,” showcases multimedia and interactive art. Exhibits are curated by the Lazizas and often feature their own work, from video installations to fashion interactive art to dance performances.
123 Smith Street, Cobble Hill
Morbid Anatomy Museum
Despite being one of Brooklyn’s newest museums, Morbid Anatomy has rapidly become one of its most well known. With a permanent collection featuring strange fascinations like anthropomorphic taxidermy, medical moulages, and wax embryological models, and rotating exhibits including Victorian hair art and spirit photography, the museum is rabidly adored by anyone seeking a peek at something macabre or bizarre.
424 3rd Avenue, Gowanus
Museum of the Contemporary African Diasporan Arts
MoCADA was founded in 1999 in a Bed-Stuy brownstone, an outgrowth of Laurie Angela Cumbo’s NYU graduate thesis, and in 2006 it was relocated to its current home in the BAM cultural district. Its focus is on emerging artists and curators, and past exhibitions have included solo shows, multimedia showcases, international group shows, and student artwork from the museum’s Artists-in-Schools program. Currently on view are Dis place, featuring artists grappling with displacement and diasporic identity; HOW TO SUFFER POLITELY, a print series examining anger and resistance to racialized violence; and Selections from Revelations, a satirical photo series by a Zimbabwean artist.
80 Hanson Place, Ft. Greene
Museum of Food & Drink
MoFAD is another new addition to the Brooklyn museum scene that has made quite a splash. Although the physical museum has only been open for a mere two months, MoFAD has been tantalizing NYC taste buds for a few years with pop-up exhibitions and a very successful Kickstarter campaign. The museum will focus on the history, culture, science, production, and commerce of all things edible, and the first exhibit, Flavor: Making It and Faking It, has received rave reviews.
62 Bayard Street, Williamsburg
Museum of Women’s Resistance
Dedicated to prominent Civil Rights leader Edith Savage-Jennings, MoWRe was created to showcase the “diversity, dynamism, and global influence of women of African descent.” Permanent exhibits include Stranger Fruit: A History of Lynching in America and a Black Woman’s Lynching Memorial, The Black Feminist Lives of Civil Rights Leaders, and Black Women, Rape, and Resistance.
279 Empire Boulevard, Crown Heights
New York Transit Museum
The Transit Museum is the largest in the country dedicated to urban transportation history, and it’s delightfully housed in an inactive IND subway station from 1926. On permanent view are subway tokens and cards through the ages, many old subway cars and busses, an array of “street furniture” (fire hydrants, parking meters, street signs, etc.) from the 1800s to today, and photos from more than 100 years of subway construction.
Corner of Boerum Place and Schermerhorn Street, Downtown Brooklyn
The Old Stone House
The Old Stone House is actually not that old—it was built in 1933. But it’s a reconstruction of a much older building: the Vechte-Cortelyou House, built in 1699 and destroyed in 1897, which played a crucial role in the Revolutionary War. OSH has permanent displays about the Battle of Brooklyn and colonial life in New York, with rotating exhibits upstairs.
336 Third Street, Park Slope
Here’s a crazy origin story: Waterfront Museum founder David Sharps bought the 1914 cargo ship that would one day house the museum in 1985 for $1. The catch was that it was sunk eight feet deep in the mudflats of New Jersey, and it took David two years to remove 300 tons of mud from the hull, restore the barge, and get her floating again. Today the boat holds a delightful collection of maritime artifacts, including tools, lanterns, foghorns, and signboards, plus displays about maritime history in New York City and beyond.
290 Conover Street, Red Hook
Weeksville Heritage Center
In the early 19th century, former slaves started one of the country’s first free African American communities in a neighborhood they called Weeksville, which eventually included its own churches, school, newspaper, and cemetery. After several decades, Weeksville gradually became part of Crown Heights, and the settlement was largely forgotten—until a 1968 workshop at Pratt, which led a local historian and a local pilot to rediscover four essentially untouched historic houses from that period. These houses form the basis of the Weeksville Heritage Center, which uses interactive and experimental programming to preserve the neighborhood’s unique history.
158 Buffalo Avenue, Crown Heights
Williamsburg Art & Historical Center
Housed in the landmarked Kings County Savings Bank, WAH Center is the project of artist Yuko Nii, who bought the rundown building in 1996 and has spearheaded its restoration. She also created the nonprofit art center within its walls, and has organized more than 500 art shows and 300 performance programs there in the last 20 years.
135 Broadway, Williamsburg
Wyckoff House Museum
The Pieter Claesen Wykoff House was built circa 1652 and is the country’s oldest surviving example of a Dutch saltbox frame house, although only a small bit of it remains original. According to Wikipedia, it’s believed that the majority of Americans with the name Wyckoff are descended from Pieter Claesen in this house. The museum is mostly geared toward school groups, with more than 5,000 students visiting each year, but tours are also offered to the public, and include artifacts and activities from the Colonial period.
5816 Clarendon Road, Canarsie
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