Museums are fun. I’ve always believed this. Though I have a confession: for most of my adult life (and certainly all of my childhood), I never gave much thought to why a museum is important, other than to assume that it just was.
And, that’s probably the point—connecting a visitor with the subject matter without beating them over the head with it, or dryly reciting it from a textbook. History is the story of how we got to where we are and why we’re facing this particular direction, and museums are basically the pop-up books of history.
So isn’t it lucky that Bay Ridge has one: the Harbor Defense Museum, located inside of the old fort on the grounds of the current army base.
Modern warfare has rendered Fort Hamilton obsolete as an instrument of coastal defense, and the departments garrisoned on the base today serve an administrative rather than a combat function. Today’s army base is here because it’s been here for nearly 200 years, and that story is told by the Harbor Defense Museum.
The museum itself is located in the caponier, a small structure that was in the inland-facing part of the old fort to protect against attacks from the flank. As far as the rest of the old fort, a significant chunk of the sea-facing structure was demolished to make way for the larger artillery pieces of the early 20th Century, and the rest is used by the Fort Hamilton Community Club.
A moderate amount of floor space is turned over to the Revolutionary War, when the British invaded Long Island near present-day Fort Hamilton, and the War of 1812, when New York was vulnerable to British sea power. This weakness in coastal defense in New York and elsewhere spurred the federal government to fund the construction and operation of a new generation of sea fortifications. From it’s completion in the 1830s, the batteries at Fort Hamilton—from it’s initial 24-pound cannon to Endicott-era coastal artillery—provided New York’s shores with deterrence and protection from enemy raids through the Second World War.
The museum’s collection is not made up exclusively of authentic pieces; a number of items like the uniforms and artillery pieces are replicas, intended to connect the visitor to history with an accurate visual representation rather than the exact relic used in Eighteen-Hundred-And-Whatever.
Unlike the city’s other former military installations, which are now run by the National Parks Service, the Harbor Defense Museum still formally falls under the auspices of the Department of Defense. In practice, the museum has been run entirely by volunteers since it opened in 1980.
The museum reopened after an extensive renovation in 2013, and has seen an increasing number of visitors, largely driven by tours from local schools and summer day camps. But individual walk-ins are welcome visitors to the museum, which is open weekdays from 10am to 4pm.