Q+A: Julie Golia, Brooklyn Historical Society

Waterfront is an exhibition and multimedia experience for all ages that brings to life the vibrant history of Brooklyn’s coastline through stories of workers, artists, industries, activists, families, neighborhoods, and ecosystems. Waterfront is on view at Brooklyn Historical Society DUMBO, located on the second floor of Brooklyn Bridge Park’s Empire Stores.

Tell us about the exhibition!

The exhibition is called Waterfront, and it covers about 20,000 years of Brooklyn’s waterfront history. We wanted to blend some of the more iconic stories about Brooklyn’s waterfront that you might’ve already heard of and come here expecting to learn about— things like the history of the Brooklyn Bridge— with untold stories, especially about people whose stories are less known by the public: workers, women, enslaved people, artists— people who have shaped the waterfront in integral ways but whose stories aren’t as represented in the historical record.

We wanted to tell the story of this building, the history of this building, and equip people with the tools to then leave the building and see history all around them.

Julie Golia, Director of Public History at Brooklyn Historical Society

Could you walk us through the curating process?

We’ve been working on this exhibition for the better part of four years, and a lot of that is because the exhibition really developed in tandem with our vision for this gallery. Brooklyn Historical Society DUMBO, where we’re sitting, is the only cultural institution in the building. The building is now largely commercial, retail, and offices, and we really took that as a responsibility. We wanted to tell the story of this building, the history of this building, and equip people with the tools to then leave the building and see history all around them, whether it’s in the cobblestones or the tracks of the industrial rail outside or in the waterfront itself. So we started with the building, actually. We did as much research on the building as possible. We figured out when it was built, when it burned down, when another part was built, and then we started to piece together the stories of people who worked here and lived here— people like Michael Harkins, the man who was hit by the bag of seed in 1873— and then we went out from there to think about the many ways of thinking about history— environmental history, which is how we got into our story about oysters and sewage, the history of landfill, the idea that so much of the waterfront had been created by man and that that has enormous impact on the way we look at the waterfront today and think about its future in the light of global sea rise. So I think what ended up emerging was a really eclectic, but still exhaustive history of a waterfront that is really looking at the past through the lens of today. Not everybody who comes to a museum is a historian, and the most important thing you can do is show people the relevance of history to the world they live in today.

How do you think this exhibition is similar to or different from previous Brooklyn Historical Society exhibitions?

I think this exhibition is representative of Brooklyn Historical Society’s approach to history, which is that we research exhaustively, and because we’re in Brooklyn and so much less has been written about Brooklyn than Manhattan, it is often telling the stories that are rarely told. I think our institution has a great commitment to social history and ground-up history, so we’re interested in telling the stories of ordinary people. So in that sense, it’s very in line with the kinds of exhibitions that we do back at our first space. That said, this is a completely different space. That’s why we wanted to create a second gallery. It’s a new audience. It’s a new kind of building. It’s a new opportunity, and we knew that people coming in here might be waiting for a reservation downstairs at a restaurant or might have just bought a pillow at West Elm or were just wondering what was on the second floor. They might have all day to spend here, they might have fifteen minutes to spend here, so we wanted to create an exhibition that could appeal to both the deepest history buff and the accidental museum-goer.

What activities does Waterfront have for kids?

Something that was very important to us is recognizing how many families frequent Brooklyn Bridge Park and how many families live in this neighborhood and to create not just a kids' section, but children’s experiences that are interspersed throughout the building. We are really excited about families coming back here over and over again. We got to do a testing on some of these things— we built prototypes for the dress-up station, for a postcard coloring area that’s going to be installed over on the other side of the space, and then for this amazing magnet wall— and we put out a call to families and over 300 families descended on BHS to test these things out, and we learned so much from them— they were so game! We were actually going to make this magnet wall half the size it was, and when we saw how popular it was, we said, “oh this has gotta take up a whole wall!” So we can’t wait! We’ve only been open for a week and already it’s just phenomenal seeing kids coming in here— kids as young as one toddling along the magnet wall and putting stuff up, but then older kids stepping back and making decisions about how they’re going to build their waterfront or doing really creative things like lining up all the bridges in some really artistic way. It’s entirely an interdisciplinary experience, and we love seeing kids have fun with history in that way!

It’s a great winter activity as well!

I think that’s really important because the waterfront is teeming with people during the summer, but people need things to do with their children in the winter and SPARK!, the Brooklyn Children’s Museum annex has led the way, but we want to be one of the destinations that people bring their kids to all the time.

As a historian, what’s one little-known fact about DUMBO that you think people should know?

One? There are so many! I just think that when you go to Washington Street today and you see everybody taking their pictures and their selfies day and night— I mean I’ve spent some time down here and there is no hour of the day that somebody is not taking a picture. It’s unbelievable! It’s so popular, and it’s become such a visual destination; people will be shocked to see pictures of it in the 1970s and '80s. I mean, it was a forgotten area. It was largely industrial. It smelled funny because there were all these warehouses all over the place. There was garbage all over the place, abandoned cars along the waterfront. There were no resources. There were no stores. The artists who moved into these neighborhoods— there were no toilets in these buildings! Today you come here and you see a cultural destination. Less than a generation ago it was an empty post-industrial neighborhood and that was not long ago, so I think just the idea that DUMBO’s rise has been so rapid and so recent.

What is your favorite place in DUMBO?

Well, I’m a mom, so it’s Jane’s Carousel. It’s so beautiful. It’s just so sculptural and elegant and with Sandy became this massive cultural symbol— that iconic picture of the water coming up— and it’s just so fun! It’s a place that my kid likes to come back to over and over again, so I have to say Jane’s Carousel.

Mentioned in this article

Empire Stores West Elm Brooklyn Bridge Park - Main Street Jane's Carousel