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Brooklyn Navy Yard's Dry Dock 4, used to build and repair vessels since the Civil War (all photographs by author)

Earlier this month, the New York Obscura Society embarked on a behind-the-scenes tour of the Brooklyn Navy Yard to explore the rich history of the vast 300-acre property. Led by Andrew Gustafson of Turnstile Tours, the tour chronicled the Yard's evolution, which originally served as a shipyard from 1776 to 1965 and is now an industrial park with thriving manufacturing and commercial activity where over 200 businesses employ more than 5,000 people.

The Navy Yard was founded in 1801 when John Adams, at the end of his presidency, quickly authorized the establishment of five naval shipyards, including one in Brooklyn. At its peak in World War II, the Navy Yard employed 70,000 men and women and operated 24 hours a day. In its history, several notable ships were built at the facility, including the USS Missouri, the battleship on which Japan officially surrendered to Allied Forces on September 2, 1945, effectively bringing WWII to a close.

In the Navy Yard's museum at BLDG 92, we viewed historical photographs, listened to oral history clips — including an interview with a female Yard worker — and enjoyed company stories from inside the modern-day Yard. As a bonus, we also explored the 24-acre former Naval Hospital annex, decommissioned in the mid 1970s and since untouched. 

Today, the Yard is committed to sustainability and green technology and is home to the nation's first multi-story, multi-tenanted LEED Gold-certified industrial building. True to its commitment to going green, the Yard employs environmentally friendly features consistently throughout the property, including the nation's first wind and solar powered street lamps, designed by Navy Yard tenant Duggal Eco-Solutions.

The Navy Yard's 40 buildings have been 99% leased for nearly ten years. However, it is now in the midst of its largest expansion since WWII, adding 1.8 million square feet of new industrial space over the next two years. Major tenants include Brooklyn Grange Farms, which operate a 65,000 square foot commercial rooftop farm; Steiner Studios, one of the largest production studios outside of Los Angeles; and Brooklyn Navy Yard Arts, a compilation of artists.

Below are photographs from the New York Obscura Society's exploration of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and follow our events page to join the next adventure. 

article-image Our tour started at BLDG 92, a museum that showcases the history and innovation of the Brooklyn Navy Yard

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article-imageFlak Bait sits piece-by-piece in the gigantic Mary Baker Engen Restoration Hangar in Chantilly, Virginia (all photographs by the author)

It is generally agreed upon that air and space meet at approximately 62 miles above sea level. This is where a barrier exists, the Karman Line, that when passed, the atmosphere thins out and outer space begins. Here on Earth, that divide is celebrated at the corner of Independence Avenue and 6th Street Northwest in downtown Washington, DC, and off Sully Road in Chantilly, Virginia. 

These two complexes of the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum are two of the most visited museums in the world, where visitors of all ages can ogle the breath-taking machines, instruments, and tools that have taken us all the way to the moon and back. But beyond the curated displays, there is work going on to allow these pieces of history to survive for generations to come. The Smithsonian Institution is not just a place to store history, but to bring back history.  

This Saturday, January 24, at the Uday-Hazy Center, the public will be allowed behind-the-scenes access to view these artifacts and talk to the conservationists who are working on them. 

This week at a press preview, the Udvar-Hazy Center presented a public look on the behind-the-scenes work that goes into restoring, conserving, and reviving America's aeronautical and space exploration past. The historians, scientists, archivists, and conservationists have to deal with all sorts of issues, from fading paint to rotting organic material to mice who made their home in a B-26 Marauder's rudder. As Malcolm Collum, Air and Space's chief conservationist, puts it: "As conservationists, we take the hippocratic oath like doctors. Anything that is brought to us, no matter the historical or cultural value, we try to save, restore, and conserve."

The items we got to see up close include several of the country's most prized aerospace icons.  

article-imageFlak Bait close-up

Flak Bait survived more operational missions than any other American aircraft during World War II, completing 207 over Europe. While the forward fuselage was on view in the museum on the Mall since 1976,  the new project is to restore and display the entire aircraft. One of the more unique aspects of this is figuring out a way to save the old fabric of the aircraft by possibly adhering it to new, sturdier fabric — a method conservationists at Air & Space have never tried before on an aircraft. 

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article-imageBody snatching carved on a 19th-century tombstone (photograph by Stephencdickson/Wikimedia)

Many people know about the resurrection men in the UK who robbed graves to sell corpses to medical schools, but few are aware that American medical schools also paid body snatchers to supply cadavers for their anatomy laboratories from the 18th to the 20th centuries. The skeletons in the closets of these respected institutions were sometimes hidden for decades until unsuspecting construction workers stumbled across bones in old wells or behind walls.

For much of the 19th century dissection was illegal in many parts of the United States, making it very difficult for medical students to learn human anatomy. So colleges had to rely on the discrete services of body snatchers who were sometimes slaves or employees of the schools. Grave robbing was even practiced by medical students and members of shadowy student organizations.

Medical College of Georgia

In the summer of 1989, a construction crew working in the basement of a building at the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta stumbled across thousands of human bones. Known as the Old Medical College Building, it was used as a lecture hall and laboratory space from 1835 until 1913.

Since dissection of human cadavers was illegal in Georgia until 1887, acquisition and disposal of a corpse had to be done in secret. So the school purchased bodies from freelance body snatchers and kept one full-time in their department.

Grandison Harris started at the Medical College of Georgia in 1852 as slave, but retired as an employee in 1908. Harris was purchased in 1852 in Charleston, South Carolina, and was owned by the entire faculty of the medical school, where he acted as a porter, janitor, teaching assistant, and resurrection man. After the Civil War, Harris became a full-time employee. Throughout his tenure, Harris stealthily robbed graves, purchased bodies of the poor and unclaimed for dissection, and quietly disposed of the remains in the basement.

When Georgia passed a law that made dissection legal in the state in 1887, it also provided a means by which medical colleges could get cadavers. But this legislation didn’t provide enough corpses for the school's dissection tables, so Harris' services were still needed.

Harris preferred to harvest corpses from the Cedar Grove Cemetery because this where Augusta's poor and black populations buried their dead. This meant there was little security and the dead were interred in flimsy coffins.

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article-imageThe Museum of Everyday Life (all photographs by the author)

On entering the Museum of Everyday Life, you are immediately struck by two things. First, there is the sign telling you to turn the lights on when you arrive, and off when you leave: the museum is self-service. Second, the entryway displays the "New England Barns Found Objects Collection," which consists of discarded horseshoes, farm tools, glasses, and other objects found in the dirt around the building, or in neighboring barns. Both signal that this museum will be unlike any other you’ve experienced before. And that is its intention.

As its name suggests, the Museum of Everyday Life is dedicated to exploring and enshrining the role that ordinary, mundane objects play in our daily lives. Situated in a barn in Vermont's rural Northeast Kingdom with no street address, the museum can be discovered through word of mouth, by a chance visit to its website, or, more commonly (and delightfully), by stumbling upon the structure on a drive to other attractions in this bucolic part of the state.


Founder and "Chief Operating Philosopher" Clare Dolan, whose greatest invention may be her own job title, was faced with a set of concerns when she contemplated starting the museum. "I was wanting to poke fun at the museum as establishment, and to mock the high seriousness and expense of these institutions," she said. She began by writing a manifesto about what a museum should be. Among them:

  • Down with sanctification of the "original"!
  • Down with all things valuable and antique!
  • Up with a new kind of museum, living and breathing and as common as dirt!

This spirit is enshrined in the museum's exhibits, which are equal parts whimsical and sincere reflections on the subjects. For the exhibit on matches, an array of matchboxes from around the world (including a saucy "x-rated" series which is behind a curtain in a tiny vestibule, and a violin made entirely from matches) pays homage to the homely tool whose power is inherent in the chemical reaction that lies in waiting.

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article-imageThe rarely-seen Cook fabric book (all photographs by the author unless indicated)

Located deep in the collections of a Canadian museum is a tiny book. Its corners are frayed, its spine cracked, its cover is worn. As the Royal BC Museum librarian carefully unties the rope around the custom-fitted box and lets the sides fall away, opening the cover and turning the tea-colored pages with her white nitrate gloves, it's revealed that this slim volume contains swatches of cloth. This book, which is only allowed to be handled a few times a year and is never on display for the general public because of its delicate condition, is one of the few remaining copies of Captain Cook’s catalogue of tapa cloth samples from his third and final voyage throughout the South Pacific. 

Published in London by object collector Alexander Shaw in 1787, this catalogue of tapa cloth (also known as Polynesian bark cloth) is a palpable reminder of the complex relationship Cook had to the islands he so rigorously explored, and a prototype for the interior decorator’s swatchbook. It is a book that documents, shows, and tells the stories of 38 different pieces of tapa cloth, all handmade from breadfruit trees, ficus, lace bark, and mulberry by women from Tonga to Figi to Tahiti.


One of the more pristine copies of the book was bought at auction in 1913 and brought to the Royal BC Museum in Victoria, British Columbia, where it’s been cared for ever since. As Claire Gilbert, expert librarian at the BC Museum, told me the morning of my visit, the title is quite a mouthful for a small book containing only 38 tiny specimens: A catalogue of the different specimens of cloth collected in the three voyages of Captain Cook to the southern hemisphere; with a particular account of the manner of the manufacturing the same in the various islands of the South Seas … and the verbal account of some of the most knowing of the navigators; with some anecdotes that happened to them among the natives.

The text, a wonderful mingling of technical cataloguing with first-person narrative accounts, is as fascinating as the samples themselves, revealing the history of a man who, obsessed and in love with the people of the South Pacific, took it upon himself to bring home a bit of fabric from every community he visited. Cook came from a long line of people obsessed with the life-cycles of exotic objects. Though obsessions with cataloguing, categorizing, and collecting go back thousands of years (anyone read Aristotle's History of Animals?), the rise of mass travel, global exploration, and cabinets of curiosity in Europe in the 18th century led to some, shall we say, interesting interpretations on the theme of collecting objects.

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