In January, the Brooklyn Historical Society inaugurated its first-floor Shellens Gallery with the long-term exhibition “Brooklyn Abolitionists/In Pursuit of Freedom,” which explores the history of abolition and the antislavery movement in Brooklyn. The exhibit is part of a borough-wide project in partnership with the Irondale Ensemble Project and Weeksville Heritage Center, combining for the first time original scholarly research and never-before-seen archival photographs and documents. To that end, the design for the gallery space breaks new ground in how visitors experience imagery and information.
The exhibit—based on five years of research led by curator/ historian Prithi Kanakamedala and project manager Kate Fermoile—is a beautiful combination of tactile materials and technology, composed by Brooklyn-based exhibition designers Matter Architecture Practice and with multimedia components by Potion, graphics and website by Pure+Applied, and lighting by Robert W. Henderson, Jr.
Upon descending the stairs into the gallery, one’s eye immediately falls slightly to the left, onto a circular section of a Brooklyn map circa 1840. The map appears as though illuminated by a spotlight from above, when in actuality it has been magnetically affixed to the dark wood floor. The effect crystalizes the fact, right from the start, that here where one stands is where this history took place.
From this point, the chronology of the antislavery movement wraps clockwise around the gallery, with the help of removable walls installed in the majestic window openings that normally look out onto Pierrepont Street. The walls provide uninterrupted exhibition space and darken the interior overall so that the illuminated text, manuscripts, and photographs appear to glow as you take them in.
Illumination is instrumental throughout and especially in the wonderfully interactive scrolling projections placed about the center of the gallery. Visitors read the information and images cast onto the tall banner-like screens, then pull a string to scroll to the next installment. Each screen is accompanied by cherry wood-clad light boxes that display unique ephemera—newspaper clippings, photographs, illustrations, letters—pertaining to the figures talked about on the screen.
Slender wooden replicas of nineteenth-century newspaper racks offer yet another opportunity to gather information. The different items can be lifted and perused in any order a visitor chooses.
The interactive experience of information-gathering “In Pursuit of Freedom” provides, simply by engaging you to participate, invokes a feeling for the era in which the antislavery movement took place. The cherry wood, the scrolls, the pulley systems, the illuminations, all contribute to a sense of what it was like to live in mid-nineteenth-century Brooklyn.
I for one will return to see more. I had to exit quickly with my two restless sons, too young to understand the importance of the movement, but they will soon. This is why I am glad “In Pursuit of Freedom” will be up for the foreseeable future (perhaps my older son will one day visit on a field trip). The show takes part in a network of exhibitions and programs, including walking tours of Brooklyn abolitionist and Underground Railroad sites, an extensive online curriculum, and a public memorial to be unveiled as part of the new Willoughby Square Park in 2016.
Photographs by Kyle Depew
Post by Anne Hellman
**Join Anne Hellman and Michel Arnaud (Design Brooklyn) at the Brooklyn Historical Society on March 6 at 6:30pm for “Adaptive Reuse in Brooklyn,” a panel discussion with top architects and designers. More information here.