Inventing This Year’s Ex Lab Exhibit: People, Stages, Progress

This spring, BHS’s fifth annual Exhibition Laboratory after-school museum studies program is underway. The fourteen participating high school students are hard at work co-curating BHS’s newest exhibit. A few of the students wanted to give you the inside scoop on what it’s been like to work on the project. It’s my pleasure to introduce guest blogger, Brooklyn Technical High School junior Neil Alacha.

Thanks, Neil!

Inventing This Year’s Ex Lab Exhibit: People, Stages, Progress

Guest Ex Lab Blogger: Neil Alacha (Brooklyn Tech)

Guest Ex-Lab Blogger: Neil Alacha (Brooklyn Tech)

by Neil Alacha

For several years, BHS has run Exhibition Laboratory (or Ex Lab, as we call it), a program that lets interested high-school students such as myself curate an exhibit that will then be put up for display. You may have seen last year’s exhibit, “Home Base,” a nostalgic tribute to the Brooklyn Dodgers and Ebbets Field. It sure was a home run! This year, those of us in Ex Lab were given the challenging – but exciting – task of bringing together into one exhibit all of Brooklyn’s history; Native Americans, Breuckelen, Brooklyn, and everything in between. We began towards the end of January, and have been meeting every Tuesday and Thursday since, so that our exhibit will be ready for viewing on June 2nd.

The toughest part about our exhibit has been figuring out how to organize it. With such an expansive array of topics to cover, we knew we had to subdivide the exhibit into more manageable sections. But what would those sections be? And how many should we have? We figured that the best way to answer those questions was just to start working on the exhibit and see where it leads us. After some greatly appreciated insight from our two historians, Professors Ted Burrows and Craig Wilder, and a preliminary perusing of the BHS Collection, we had a rough idea of how the exhibit would look, with seven sections in mind: Native Americans, Colonial Brooklyn, American Revolution, Print Culture, Abolitionism and the Civil War, Immigration and Consolidation, and Pop Culture.

Just when we thought we had crossed the first hurdle, however, we soon found that after coming up with those seven sections, we had more questions and doubts than before. Many of the objects we wanted to display and stories that we wanted to tell seemed to overlap between categories. We knew we needed to change our game plan. After some creative thought, we decided that rather than focus on chronological sections, we would create thematic sections. As a result of that development, we are now confident in our current plan, which includes five sections: People, Places, Wars, Print Culture, and Brooklyn’s Image.

Ex Lab students researching BHS's archival materials to chose objects for their exhibit.

Ex Lab students researching BHS's archival materials to choose objects for their exhibit.

Concurrently with deciding on the content and layout of our exhibit, we also had to select a title. The few weeks we spent on brainstorming and debating possible titles felt like a nerve-wracking limbo period – our designers needed a title to aid them for inspiration, and we needed a title to begin to publicize the exhibit. To start off, each student in Ex Lab came up with at least one possible title. Here is a sampling of the ideas we threw out there: Inventing Brooklyn: From Farming Village to Urban Jungle (my own creation), Building Brooklyn: Brick by Brick, Inventing Brooklyn: Collage of a Borough’s Past, and Brooklyn: The Amazing History, to name a few.

Ex Lab students using a classic democratic method to choose potential exhibit titles.

Ex Lab students using a classic democratic method to choose potential exhibit titles.

From all of our titles, we chose five or so of our favorites and sent them to the BHS staff for input. “Inventing Brooklyn: Collage of a Borough” emerged as the front runner. But after a follow-up meeting with Professor Wilder, however, we realized that we needed to do better. “Collage of a Borough” would not give prospective visitors any more information about our exhibit than “Inventing Brooklyn” gives. We needed a more descriptive subtitle. Professor Wilder gave us the idea of somehow including “People” in the title; after all, it’s the people of Brooklyn who make it so special, right? After a few days of back-and-forth, and quite a few word changes, order shifts and punctuation doubts, we finally landed on “Inventing Brooklyn: People, Places, Progress.” And we couldn’t be happier.

I hope you enjoyed reading my snapshot on this year’s Ex Lab. You can look forward to hearing the perspectives of other Ex Lab students in the weeks that follow. I can’t wait to see you on June 2nd, when our exhibit officially opens!

All photos in this post by Keiko Niwa.

About Todd Florio

Todd is the Head of School Programs at the Brooklyn Historical Society.
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2 Responses to Inventing This Year’s Ex Lab Exhibit: People, Stages, Progress

  1. george tice says:

    please if anyone can help. my greatgrandmother was from brooklyn. probobly around 1900 her last name was johnson she maried my greatgrandfather his last name was estelle. im trying to find out my indian heritage from my grandmother she was suppose to be half from one tribe and half from another.please help. you can reach me at 919 282 6583 my name is george

  2. Emily Potter-Ndiaye says:

    This entry really highlights the careful decision-making behind successful exhibits. Even (or especially) when tackling a subject as broad as the history of Brooklyn the curators need to agree what to include and what to leave out as well as an organizational structure. I love the shift from chronological to thematic sections–this will give visitors and educators many different points of entry into Brooklyn’s history.

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