"The Great Coney Island Spectacularium"

A new exhibit looks at Coney's peculiar past.

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  • Photograph: Courtesy shorpy.com

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    Infant Incubators, Luna Park at Coney Island circa 1905

  • Photograph: Courtesy shorpy.com

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    "The Submarine Boat" Attraction, Coney Island, Circa 1904

  • Photograph: Courtesy of the Coney Island Museum

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    View of Coney Island's Luna Park at night

  • Photograph: Courtesy the Coney Island Museum

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    Helter-skelter at Coney Island's Luna Park

  • Photograph: Courtesy of the Coney Island Museum

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    "Atlantis," The Sunken City, Steeplechase Park, Coney Island

  • Photograph: Courtesy the Coney Island Museum

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    Midget City Fire and Police Departments, Dreamland, Coney Island

  • Illustration: Courtesy Aaron Beebe

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    A sketch for the Great Cyclorama of the Burning of Dreamland

Photograph: Courtesy shorpy.com

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Infant Incubators, Luna Park at Coney Island circa 1905

To modern eyes, Coney Island in the early 1900s would likely appear fascinatingly weird—and, at times, offensive: Attractions included a minicity of little people dubbed Lilliputia, an infant incubator for premature babies, and simulated natural disasters, such as a tenement fire and the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 (the latter being a relatively recent disaster that took more than 3,000 lives). Contemporary audiences will be able to revisit this era with "The Great Coney Island Spectacularium," a new exhibit opening Friday 8 at the Coney Island Museum. The show is timed to coincide with the fifth annual Congress of Curious Peoples, a ten-day festival dedicated to Coney's sideshow culture.

Curators Joanna Ebenstein, who runs the Brookyn-based Morbid Anatomy Library, and Aaron Beebe of the Coney Island Museum aim to connect visitors to the enclave's oddball past by showcasing bizarre elements from the museum's collection, along with loaned objects. The centerpiece is a replicated cabinet of curiosities (a type of independent museum that housed natural-world knickknacks, historical artifacts and fine art), stocked with items drawn from the Niagara Falls Museum, founded in 1827 by British businessman Thomas Barnett. The resulting display is predictably bizarre: taxidermy, seaweed needlepoint, lithographs of bloody battle scenes and paintings made of bug carcasses. "You used to be able to see all of these things at one park," Ebenstein says. "When I see adults cavorting here, I think that our ancestors had better options for the imagination, that they dreamed bigger. What has changed that we see [these attractions] as bizarre now?"

Coney's most outrageous displays met a sudden end on May 27, 1911, when a nine-alarm fire flattened Dreamland (one of three major amusement parks that existed at the time, alongside Luna and Steeplechase Parks). On the centennial of that event, the museum will unveil its own audiovisual spectacle commissioned for the occasion: a "cosmorama" that consists of a 40-foot-long panoramic painting of the park, brought to life through shifts in light and color. As the sounds of roaring elephants and crying babies blend with those of crackling flames, a narrator will walk visitors through the events of the fire (in which—thankfully—no humans were killed). "After the 1911 fire, they didn't rebuild Dreamland," says Ebenstein. "Something was really lost there."

CURIOUSER AND CURIOUSER! "The Great Coney Island Spectacularium," Coney Island Museum, 1208 Surf Ave at 12th St, Coney Island, Brooklyn (718-372-5159, spectacularium.org). Sat, Sun noon--5pm. Fri 8--Apr 29, 2012.

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