Our HistoryA video excerpt from NYC TV's Blueprint | NYC Brooklyn Heights episode about BHS, its history and its landmarked building.
The Brooklyn Historical
Society was founded in 1863 as the Long Island Historical Society. At
that time, the city of Brooklyn was the commercial and cultural center
of Long Island. During World War I, BHS contributed to the war effort
by transforming its 600-seat auditorium into a Red Cross headquarters
by removing the seats and building a flat floor over the original
sloping floor. After 1926, this space was subdivided and rented to
commercial tenants to raise funds for the institution's operating
expenses. During the mid-twentieth century, BHS operated only as a
library, although it continued to add to its collections.
In the 1980's, new leadership reestablished the organization as a museum and education center. In 1989, after conducting its first capital campaign, BHS restored its ground floor, installing a permanent exhibit that showcased the eclectic range of its collections and chronicled the history of African-American, white, Latino, Asian and Native American Brooklynites. The exhibit included a wax figure of Nat King Cole from Coney Island, Dodger memorabilia, tool boxes from the WWII Navy Yard, "The Honeymooners" stage set, and a drawing of a 17th Century Brooklyn Indian. BHS also began to create a series of exhibits focusing on topics such as the history of African-American churches in Brooklyn, an insider's view of Latino communities, and a chronicle of Crown Heights. BHS’ AIDS exhibition was the first to cover this topic at a history museum in the United States. Documentary photographers working for BHS have recorded thousands of images of contemporary Brooklyn.
BHS has the most comprehensive collection of Brooklyn-related materials in existence. In 1993, the U.S. Department of Education designated its library as a "major research library" under Title II-C of the Higher Education Act. As one in seven Americans can trace their family roots to Brooklyn, the BHS collections represent an important national resource. Inquiries received each month reflect the nationwide interest in the borough and its relevance to many family histories.
In October 1999, BHS undertook a full-scale restoration of its National Historic Landmark building. A central objective in the renovation of its headquarters is positioning BHS as a community hub for the exchange of ideas and an accessible resource for learning. Since reopening our building in 2003, BHS has served 120,000 students and teachers throughout Brooklyn and Manhattan through on-site educational programs, classroom visits, teacher development workshops, and classroom “tool kits.” Additionally, the public now has access to a database containing 33,000 images, walking tours of Brooklyn, and on and off-site exhibits ranging in a variety of topics covering the social and cultural history of Brooklyn. BHS is committed to offering programming that helps Brooklynites young and old develop pride in their own cultural traditions while fostering understanding of their neighbors' similarities and differences.
An extensive renovation began in 2012 to update interior spaces for BHS’s current needs while remaining respectful to the building’s status as a historic landmark. The firm Christoff:Finio Architecture was selected to enhance the visitor experience through a redesign of the first and lower levels. With the restoration of the historic main entrance into the tile lobby and new galleries, classrooms, visitors services desk, retail space, and event space, the renovation will create an even more welcoming and engaging public forum in which to discover Brooklyn’s history.