Museum Exhibitions

The Great Coney Island Spectacularium

Coney Island at the end of the 19th Century was the high point in a long history of immersive amusements that were common before the advent of cinema. These attractions grew out of theater, dime museums and magic lantern shows, and featured spectacles on a scale that is hard to imagine today. In Coney Island–as in the late Victorian worlds fairs, museums, department stores and parks–a universe of spectacle was refined and perfected in ways that now often seem perplexing and bizarre, blurring the boundaries between science and spectacle, current affairs and entertainment, and education and titillation.

On an average day in Coney Island from the years 1890 to 1915, these are a few of the amazing attractions a visitor could choose from:

  • Lilliputia, an entire town of 300 midgets modeled on 16th century Nuremberg (only at half-scale) and featuring its own midget parliament, midget hotel, midget stables with midget ponies, Midget City Theater vaudeville shows, and midget fire department rushing off to put out imaginary fires at regularly scheduled intervals
  • Fighting the Flames, an immersive spectacular which staged tenement fires every half hour and featured a cast of 2,000
  • The Infant Incubator where real premature babies were put on public display, cared for by nurses behind a glass window and kept alive by a novel technology not yet available at hospitals
  • The Bauer Sisters Candy Delicatessen where one could purchase “Sauer Kraut, Frankfurters, Pork Sausages…Meat Balls, Plum Pudding and a great many others too numerous to mention, all made of pure candy.”
  • The Last Days of Pompeii, an extravaganza that combined historical vignette, theatre performance and a fireworks show in telling the story of the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius and of the destruction of Pompeii circa 79AD
  • Orient, featuring the hanging gardens of Babylon, troupes of Indian performers, and a theater & museum with antiquities
  • The Boer War, a recreation of pivotal moments in the recent war and starring 600 genuine Boer War veterans fresh from Johannesburg and performed in a 12,000-seat stadium
  • The Galveston Flood, a a mechanical cyclorama dramatizing the Galveston flood which had killed 6,000 people only two years before
  • The Temple of Palmistry
  • A Trip to the Moon in which visitors take a trip to the moon by airship and are greeted upon arrival by midget moon men offering gifts of green cheese
  • The Insanitarium with Blowhole Theater, where clowns and midgets herded patrons with electric cattle prods, maneuvering women above jets of air which would blow their skirts up before an audience of park patrons
  • Atlantis Under the Sea (see postcard above)
  • War of the World–aka The Great Naval Spectatorium–a war spectacular utilizing models & actors wherein 60 foreign ships attack New York City
  • Monkey Music Hall, an “ape show” where 60 monkeys play in a band and allow peeks into their domestic life
  • Streets of Delhi, a reproduction of a city street scene in India and Dubar of Delhi, in which 300 Indian natives in costume parade on elephants, camels, and horses
  • Dragon’s Gorge, an indoor scenic railway with views of The River Styx and Hades (!!!), the North Pole, Africa, the Grand Canyon
  • Pawnee Bill’s Wild West Show
  • Brownie’s Midget Theatre
  • The Titanic Disaster, staged in 1914 and using miniatures of The Titanic and Carpathia to enact the principal events of the tragedy
  • The Oriental Village with whriling dervishes, dancing girls, acrobats, camels & cafes serving Turkish coffee

The Great Coney Island Spectacularium is an exhibition that aims to explore, celebrate, and evoke turn of the 20th Century Coney Island as the pinnacle of this kind of pre-cinematic immersive and spectacular amusement. The exhibition is a collaboration between Museum Artist in Residence Joanna Ebenstein and Museum Director Aaron Beebe, and is funded in part through the generosity of the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Arts, the Dedalus Foundation, the New York Council for the Humanities, the New York State Council on the Arts, and others.