Skip to Content

Summer Archives Internship Reflection from Fiona Wu

By Maggie Schreiner

Posted on September 16, 2020

BHS staff with exhibition model, circa 1990, arc.202.box16.187; Brooklyn photograph and illustration collection, ARC 202, Brooklyn Historical Society.

Interning at BHS this summer, I have learned a lot about working with archival sources digitally as well as the history of Brooklyn.

My first task was to catalog and process photographs of the Brooklyn Historical Society from the 1990s, creating item-level descriptions, finding subject headings, and completing the photograph records in PastPerfect. Especially in the age of remote working, I found the photographs of the mundane, the BHS office, the Othmer Library, and old BHS exhibits fascinating and I centered most of the social media posts for BHS that I wrote around these images.

In a history class last semester, we were assigned readings by British historian, Peter Laslett. He remarked that while we knew all the intricacies of the lives of great thinkers, royalty, and government officials, we knew nothing about our ancestors; what they ate, what they felt, how they lived. For him, that was the world we have lost. The photographs of the Brooklyn Historical Society from the 1990s are evidence of the lost world of our ancestors, the BHS workplace.

The photographs reveal a history of former staff and interns: outdoor farewell parties, extensive index card cabinets, computers with floppy disk openings, and the worker’s uniform of shoulder pads, turtlenecks, and permed hair. Other photographs show the ribbon cutting ceremony of a Dodgers exhibit, an evening crowd learning about the effects of AIDS in Brooklyn, and young children making paper plate face masks in a classroom. While curating and preserving Brooklyn history for others, BHS has also become an important part of Brooklyn history as well, drawing a distinct image of a past era found nowhere else.

For the second part of the summer, I processed Brooklyn Waterfront oral histories, editing and formatting transcripts, editing audio with Audacity, and syncing audio and transcripts with OHMS. While I learned a lot about the technical front of oral histories, the narrators taught the significance of wealth, race, and sexuality to one’s experience of Brooklyn.

For Crane Davis, a writer and former Marine Corps officer, the Brooklyn Waterfront provided a community, a home, and a livelihood. In Brooklyn, he fought the evictions of manufacturers, artists, immigrant workers, and loft tenants like himself while raising his family and working freelance.

For Sienna Shields, an artist, who along with her art collective, DUMBA, was evicted, the Brooklyn Waterfront provided a queer friendly space for many Black artists and creatives where they could freely explore their own identities and ideas. She repurposed materials thrown out by the city’s manufacturers for her art, organized gatherings and performances for other artists, and created a home for those who needed one.

For David and Jane Walentas, the losses of Davis and Shields were justified by the new Brooklyn Waterfront that they were curating, the Dumbo of today. The billionaire couple joked about having too much money to spend, flying in their son’s private jet, and having tens of thousands of artists compete for seventeen rent subsidized studios. The Brooklyn Waterfront oral histories demonstrate that there is no single narrative of Brooklyn and there are still many to be heard.

Starting the internship, I wanted to learn more about archival work and the city where I originated. Ending the internship, I can say I have. For the decade I lived in Queens, I did not know anyone with parents that spoke English as their first language. My interpretation of the city was limited to my oddly equal parts Asian, Eastern European, and South American neighborhood. Interning at the Brooklyn Historical Society has exposed me to the many diverse experiences of Brooklynites. For future researchers, educators, and historians, the Brooklyn Historical Society will remain an important source of materials and documents of historical knowledge with much to be found and much to be said.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked