At Coney Museum, interesting things from our past

Diverse inventions from the last century and earlier make up Denny Daniel's travelling colleciton of “Interesting Things” that are exhibited once a month at the Coney Island Museum.

Daniel has gathered inventions and antiques that today’s youth find incredible, so he describes and explains how they work and then encourages them to interact with the objects, many of which are 100 years old.
    
So the demonstration — conducted only about once a month, at 4 p.m. on a Sunday, at 1208 Surf Ave. — turns into a practical educational exercise on how things work. The general response was “Cool!” when the audience saw a spy camera, a stereopticon camera or a 3D “I Love Lucy” comic book. The vest pocket spy camera resembles a pocket watch, the type that gentlemen wore in 1904 (the date stamped into the back); the stem is a lens and it still works. An 1894 bellows Kodak is on the table.
    
Recently, two children, Parson and Chloe Workman from Port Washington, visited the Coney Island Museum with their parents. Parson was intrigued when Daniel set up a century-old telephone that they could talk on; Chloe watched the pictures unfold in the nickelodeon machine. Both looked on as the working model steam engine puffed.
    
Daniel has been gathering “things” since his teenage years and exhibiting them at public events for the past five years. He considers his collection the “missing links factory.” Patrick Wall, the house manager at Coney Island USA, claims Daniel has the artist’s “long-term vision” that translates into educating today’s youth about the foundations for today’s iPhones, video games, communication and well-being.
    
His traveling “museum” can be broken down into eight “departments” or categories. Because Daniel welcomes children to his performances, toys are a central focus not battery-operated playthings but wind-up toys and toys that children turn on by pushing buttons and twisting switches.

A bellows-type camera, a telegraph key and other “interesting things” of the past. Photo by John Manbeck

Early calculators are in his math department. These simple machines are capable of answering complex questions.
    
Man’s desire and effort to record his thoughts are in the literature department. Techniques of writing, printing and preserving thoughts and ideas are explained. Among household items, Daniel demonstrates a propane clothing iron and a brick-sized cell phone. Scientific models from yesteryear are precursors of those used in today’s health industry.

Both recorded music and photography, his last two departments, had their origins in the 19th century. Daniel encourages young people to listen to a 1905 Edison wax cylinder of music or watch an early movie in a Mutascope, a nickelodeon that sat on a table.
    
In the days before Twitter, messages were sent by carrier pigeon. Daniel owns a cloth case that a soldier in World War I used to transport a bird. When the “doughboy” wanted to send a message back to headquarters, he jotted a code on a paper, inserted it in a tube attached to the pigeon’s leg and set the bird loose to fly back to the commanding officers.
    
Daniel owns thousands of such “interesting things,” which he stores in his apartment and a storage facility. He collects them from dealers on the Internet, sales at thrift shops and flea markets, and through personal contacts. His favorite is a windup Edison cylinder phonograph that stands 3 feet tall. The sound from the loudspeaker horn is loud and clear.
    
Daniel started his traveling museum after studying filmmaking at New York University. Now he moves around the country presenting shows in schools, at festivals, in libraries and hospitals, and for private organizations — from kindergartens to seniors. For the past two years, he has had a booth at Channel 13’s annual Celebration for Teaching and Learning. He has presented a program on the Intrepid and will travel out to Reno, Nev. for a performance this year. Every one of his themed shows is unique.
    
Daniel encourages his audiences to touch his exhibits and to see how they run. He said he never lost anything to theft and has broken more of his exhibits than audience members have.
    
The travelling Museum of Interesting Things may focus on the past but has a contemporary website at www.museumofinterestingthings.org, where you can see when the museum is open, as well as an e-mail address: [email protected]. For those who prefer a live voice on the telephone, call (212) 274-8757.

The Coney Island Museum [coneyislandmuseum.com] is open Thursdays through Sundays, 12 to 6 p.m.
       
©2012, John B. Manbeck
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