Q&A With Tenement Museum Educator, Sarah Litvin

Sarah is an Education Associate at the Tenement Museum in New York City.  She was kind enough to speak with me through email and then in person during my time in NYC last May.  

What kinds of programs do you offer on a daily basis for student field trips?

Every day, we offer 3rd person building tours, Costumed Interpretation, and walking tours to students between 10 am and 1 pm.

What kinds of programs do you offer for people with special needs or disabilities?

Talking Tactile Tablet at the Visitor Center

We have a variety of built-in accessible features in our Visitors Center including a Talking Tactile Tablet and Induction loops. We also try to duplicate the ways we share information: through signs, audio cues, and tactile guides. We offer ASL tours conducted with no voice interpretation at the Museum for regularly scheduled public tours, and for school groups upon advanced request. We also offer touch tours for visitors who are blind/low vision for group of 5 or more with advanced notice. (They don’t have special programs that were created only for students with special needs; they do use modifications and very flexible educators to make programs for students with special needs successful. More information on their accessible programs is available on my previous blog, Accessibility and the Lower East Side Tenement Museum and at their website.)

What disabilities or disorders do you focus on?

We focus on visitors who are blind/low vision, deaf/hard of hearing, and visitors who have mobility impairments. Increasingly, we’re building our toolkit to work with visitors with autism.

How do you feel about universal design?  Is that incorporated into your exhibit design or programming?

Tenement Museum Visitor Center

Universal Design is where it’s at! We’ve tried to incorporate it into new exhibit development and into our new Visitors Center. As I mentioned, we have induction loops for people who are hard of hearing installed at the ticketing and retail kiosks as well as the cinema space in our Visitors Center.  All of our films are open-captioned, and every tour begins with the educator offering an assistive listening device. We incorporate handling objects on all of our public tours, and have extra objects that we bring in for visitors who are blind or low vision. Our newest exhibits are the trickiest, since we are now working on creating a touch interactive exhibit. Designing it with Universal Design in mind has been extremely difficult. What works for one population sometimes makes it less accessible for another population.

How did you research for program development?

In terms of support, I rely on my Museum professionals in the New York City Museum Educator Roundtable, which as an Access Peer Group. I also rely on a series of advisors; our Access Advisory Committee is a group of consultants/advocates drawn from different disability communities in the area.

Do you have a specific staff member or set of staff members that you work with on this?

Until this year, Access has been an Education department initiative. However, this year I have started a cross-departmental Access Committee to make sure that we are thinking about these issues Museum-wide.

What resources did you use outside of the museum (community, consultants, experts, audience members)?

In addition to the folks cited above, we also do a lot of focus groups following programs. I’ll pretty much pick anyone’s brain that is willing to talk to me about what they do in their Museum.

How do you evaluate results of programming?

We have not done a comprehensive evaluation of our access programming. We measure our success through the high rate of return from schools for the deaf and blind. Often, these schools recommend our programming to other schools as well, which we take as a good sign.

What kind of sensitivity and awareness programs or training do you have for staff?

Every new staff member has Access Awareness training as part of their initial Museum orientation. Follow-up and additional training is available for staff as well. I try to send out as much information as I can about trainings I hear about in the city, and to bring speakers to talk on Access themes at least twice a year.

How do you advertise your programming to the public?

We post our offerings on our website and create fliers for upcoming events. I also collect e-mail addresses to e-blast former visitors about upcoming events and programs. We also use population-specific websites such as deafnyc and handson.org to publicize our events.

A few notes from our meeting:

The Tenement Museum takes a narrative approach; for instance, they can take an object like a sewing machine and construct the stories of many people through that one artifact.  In addition to other accessibility programs, the Tenement Museum offers offsite and distance learning for adults who find the museum uncomfortable or inaccessible.

Things to keep in mind when developing programs for children with special needs:

  • Think about how to make programs more concrete and object based.
  • Always set an agenda and make sure you list what is coming next so students feel comfortable.
  • The museum tried using stress balls for students to focus their energy.  The objects were printed with an historical object (sewing machine, objects from every day life) to focus questions and ideas.  There were some logistical problems with the stress balls, but they are working on preparing more options.
  • They also provide notebooks or sketchbooks as a visual option for students.  The children can use the notebook to sketch things that they think are important to focus their questions and energies.
  • Educators try to talk to the teacher before the visit to evaluate the students’ needs.  The Tenement Museum also has a checklist of behaviors that they can look at before visits to know what tactics might work with the student groups that come to visit the site.

A BIG thank you to Sarah and the Tenement Museum for allowing me to visit and see the museum programs first-hand.  I look forward to sharing my research with you and hearing more about your journey towards new programs.

Accessibility at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum

Tenement Museum Visitor Center

The Tenement Museum has been on my radar since taking Museum Studies classes with Dr. Robert Connolly and Dr. Leslie Luebbers at the University of Memphis.  It has been a beacon for community involvement and innovative programming, and it continues to be a pioneer for HISTORY museums in reaching out to populations with disabilities.  I was elated when Sara Litvin, an educator at the museum, responded to my emails and agreed to meet with me at the museum during my research trip.

In May, I ventured down to the Lower East Side and experienced 97 Orchard Street for myself.  The museum tells the stories of the people who lived in the tenement building on Orchard Street in the Lower East Side of Manhattan.  The mission of the museum is, “The Tenement Museum preserves and interprets the history of immigration through the personal experiences of the generations of newcomers who settled in and built lives on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, America’s iconic immigrant neighborhood; forges emotional connections between visitors and immigrants past and present; and enhances appreciation for the profound role immigration has played and continues to play in shaping America’s evolving national identity.” (http://www.tenement.org/about.html)  This mission is seen throughout the museum and the programs and events offered by the museum.

97 Orchard interior stairs, from http://www.tenement.org/about.html

97 Orchard interior stairs, from http://www.tenement.org/about.html

Visitors may only visit by taking a guided tour of the building.  The museum offers many tours including, Hard Times, Sweatshop Workers, Irish Outsiders, and Exploring 97 Orchard Street.  They also offer school group tours, and community involvement opportunities.

I attended the Sweatshop Workers tour on my visit to the museum.  It was a rainy, overcast day when I visited, which seemed a fitting atmosphere for visiting this historic site.  We began by walking up the steps of the tenement at 97 Orchard Street into a dark hall.  The tour group then climbed the steps, holding on to the original banister that so many people in the past had held before us.  We continued on to the Levine family apartment, which was used not only for living, but also for running the family’s garment industry business.

Photo by Jacob Riis of the garment industry and tenement life

We looked at primary documents related to the neighborhood, garment industry, and reforms, and also looked at the artifacts and furnishing that were typical to tenement family rooms.  Next we went to the Rogarshevskys apartment to learn about the Jewish family and their struggles with keeping the Sabbath while their daughters were employed in garment factories that required them to work on their Holy Days.

Standing in the same building where these people from the past lived and worked, looking at the artifacts they used each day, and hearing the sounds outside the tenement evoked feelings that wouldn’t be possible in another location or artificial setting.  This brings up the question of, how do people with special accessibility needs experience this site to the same degree as those who are at the physical location?

Accessible options in the visitor center

The accessibility section of the museum website offers touch tours for people with sight impairments and sign language tours for people with hearing impairments.  The orientation film is captioned for those with hearing impairments, and braille and large print versions of primary sources are also available upon request. Additionally, in the Visitor Center, there is an “Accessible Learning Center” which includes a talking tablet and a tablet with a raised façade of the main building and floor plans for people with sight impairments to “see.” I really enjoyed the tactile tablet, in spite of being able to see the site and the building.  It explains various aspects of the museum that weren’t explained on my tour.  This is yet another example of the positives of universal design… the product is designed for those with disabilities, but the entire population can benefit from it.  I can also see this as an interactive that (supervised) children could enjoy when not being utilized by the intended population.

The “talking tablet” with raised facade and floor plan

The historic building offers many challenges to people with disabilities, especially those with physical disabilities or difficulties.  The front building is accessed by several steep steps to the front door, and once inside, visitors are greeted by the original, old wooden staircase which must be traversed to experience the guided tour.  The website does offer other opportunities for those using wheelchairs or other implements, including, a new exhibit opening in 2012 called, “Shop Life”, which will explore the many businesses housed at 97 Orchard Street. This will be the Museum’s first-ever wheelchair-accessible exhibit at 97 Orchard Street. The exhibit is still under construction at this time, but updates are available on their blog, including this one about construction progress.  The event called, “Tour the Neighborhood” is wheelchair accessible, and during the winter, the “Foods of the Lower East Side” is held in a wheelchair accessible room.   Additionally, the Visitors Center is has universally designed elevators and restrooms on the ground level.

Front of the historic building

There is also a “virtual tour” which benefits not only people with disabilities that can not visit the historic building, but really anyone who wants to experience the site without a visit to New York City.  This tour is available on their blog at: http://www.tenement.org/Virtual-Tour/index_virtual.html

More information about accessible features at the Tenement Museum are available online by clicking this link.   Really, there is a ton of information on their website and blog, and I could spend hours research and telling you all about it.  I’m not going to do that, but you should check it out!!

The website does not address programs for children with special needs (which is central to my research), but in my discussions with Sara at the museum, I did learn a lot about the opportunities they are taking advantage of and fine-tuning to reach that audience.  In general, their programs are modifications of the programs that are already in place rather than all-new programs developed for students with special needs.  The next blog post I will publish will be a Q&A on museum programs and disability with Sara Litvin from the Tenement Museum.

Meet Me at MOMA – Program for Adults with Dementia

After my trip to the Jewish Museum, I walked through Central Park, past the Metropolitan Museum of art (which I had not yet visited and was still disillusioned by), and continued down the Museum Mile.  I stopped for lunch at a small deli on Park Avenue, then traveled down to the Museum of Modern Art.   I found out about the MOMA Accessibility programs through the Museum Access Consortium of New York, and the staff was gracious enough to respond to my emails and invite me to observe one of their accessible programs.

At MOMA

The program I attended is called, “Meet Me at MOMA.”  More information about this program is available on the MOMA website at: http://www.moma.org/meetme/index. The website explains that at the program, attendees will, “look at art in the galleries with your family and friends…. Discuss art with specially trained MoMA educators who discuss themes, artists, and exhibitions.”  This event is offered monthly to all people with dementia and their families and/or care partners.  The museum website also offers a guide for designing a similar program to “Meet Me at MOMA” program at your own museum.  Information about this exciting opportunity is available online at: http://www.moma.org/meetme/practice/museums#museums_designing

I want to share some of my experiences with this program, and some of the comments that attendees made while on the tour.  As stated above, the program I attended was created for adults with dementia.  The group I was with was made up mostly of elderly people with some younger caretakers and family members.  As we went through the galleries, our guide Paula stopped at 4 important pieces throughout the hour to ask questions and get feedback from participants.  We looked at Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh, Mademoiselles d’Avignon by Pablo Picasso, Bicycle Wheel by Marcel Duchamp, and Christina’s World by Andrew Wyeth.

As a side note, I am not an artist nor an art historian.  My own views of these pieces are irrelevant, but I will say that I really enjoyed the honesty of some of the participants when describing these works of modern art.

Visiting with Starry Night

The first piece we visited was Van Gogh’s Starry Night. As another side note, the museum was closed for this program, and being in a small group, I was able to get up close and personal with this piece – it was amazing.  The guide asked such questions as, “what are we looking at? What are your observations?”.  Participants had insightful answers such as, “it looks like lights when you take your glasses off” and that looking at this painting made an individual feel that there was, “nothing little about twinkle twinkle little star.”  Others thought that the village seemed to be overwhelmed by the sky, the artist used, “blobs of paint”, and that the painting conveyed the feeling of a cold night by using cool colors.  The guide also asked, “What feelings would you say describe the work?” Answers included:  overwhelming, peaceful but the sky is exciting.

Talking about Picasso

Next we ventured into another room to view Mademoiselles de Avignon by Picasso from 1907.  Participants were invited to study the piece and make observations and comments.  Most agreed that the painting showed lots of women, but that they aren’t real women.  The general shape, eyes, and bodies are strange. They aren’t soft bodies but instead are hard and square, and the eyes are crooked.  When the guide asked, “where are they?” answers included: Hell, a scary place, and a studio with drapes.   People described this painting as:  an image of despair, being of women, but the 2 women on the right side are not human, staring at us, there is no life, nightmarish, aggressive, painted by a man but women are masculine. A particularly insightful participant pointed out that perhaps the women are  hiding their identity behind a public masks, and the African style masks are one step further to hiding their true selves.

Discussing Duchamp

The intriguing sculpture Bicycle Wheel by Marcel Duchamp was the next piece the group visited.  The comments on this piece were some of my favorite.  Participants said that this piece presented both a challenge and a possibility.  This was countered by another person who claimed the piece was simply absurd – there are no possibilities here!   Someone else asked the question, “What makes this art? Because it is in a museum?”  This led to the every-important discussion of what art is, and how something can “become” art.  The point was made that if this piece were in your basement it would be seen as trash, or as something in need of repair.  Another person said that this sculpture was “not enough to be art in a museum.”  The guide asked what it needed to become worthy of being in an art museum.  The honest answer was, “It just doesn’t turn me on.” It was then discussed that this was intended by the artist to be art , and that anything can be art, but that doesn’t mean you’ll like it.  Another participant said that the piece represents art on a pedestal by putting a bicycle wheel on a stool.  One man, who said he was a painter, said he feels that his art, and any art really, isn’t art unless someone looks at it and reacts to it.

Lastly, (my most favorite part,) the gallery guide asked, “What did the artist do to make this?”  The simple and succinct answer? “He drilled a hole.”

Commenting on Christina’s World

The last piece we visited was Andrew Wyeth’s painting Christina’s World from 1948.  One person said that the landscape looks like western Kansas where she grew up.  The group agreed that the subject seem to be seeking something;  the house is her goal.  She is an attractive woman, graceful, but it seems that something is wrong with her.  She is desperate, disabled, yearning to walk, has no muscle tone and chafed elbows, and she resides in a bleak and barren landscape.  The painting is spare and realistic, while the colors reflect a grim mood.  Others pointed out that while she is struggling, her pink dress is not desolate.  She has a hard life, but she is pushing and determined.

Throughout the session, the gallery guide would often repeat questions, comments, and answers more loudly so everyone could hear them.  She was also very patient with the audience and made sure that everyone was comfortable and understood what was going on.  The program was very enjoyable, and the participants seem to have a great time and be involved in an engaging exercise that helped their cognitive powers.  The question and answer system seemed to work well in engaging the participants, and it seems that this would be a great way to engage any audience.

The museum also has a lot of other access programs, that I hope to explore more in the future.

Accessibility at the Jewish Museum, NYC

When I started researching museums that are working extensively with accessibility, especially accessibility for people with cognitive, developmental, or learning disabilities, I was fortunate to find the Museum Access Consortium of New York City.  This was one of the main reasons I chose New York City as my main research hub; there is a huge concentration of museums, and the citizens of the metro area value and support museums to a greater extent than many other areas of the country.  The MAC website led me to several different museum websites where I was able to learn about programs available to people with special needs.

The Jewish Museum

The first museum I visited was the Jewish Museum at 5th Avenue and 92nd Street, which is principally an art museum.  There I met with Dara Cohen, the School Programs Coordinator.  The museum offers several types of programs for people with special needs including: access school programs,  visitors with sight impairments, hearing impairments, dementia, and learning or developmental disabilities.  The museum also works with all general access groups including groups with autism, emotional disturbances, and more.

Our discussion focused primarily on their programs for learning and developmental disabilities.  The Jewish Museum adapted their current programs for special needs groups that cater to groups with fewer children.  The museum has specific access educators and hopes to train all educators sometime soon.  Educators contact the school teacher in advance and talk with the teacher to adapt the programming; this provides more avenues for participation by the students.  Dara made it clear that even with planning, there is still a lot of “on your feet” teaching and critical thinking involved with presenting programs to children with special needs.

Accessibility at the Jewish Museum

Being an art museum, the programs are very visual; they have a studio art component for all elementary age groups and access groups of all ages.  For participation they might pick out a shape from the art piece and hold it, look at it, make the shape with their body, count the times the shape appears, etc.

The museum also holds  Sunday Workshops 4 times per year, that are open to the whole family, not just students.  The audience is generally people with learning and development disabilities. This program was adapted from MOMA and Met offerings that were changed to fit the Jewish Museum.  Dara estimated that 95% of students who attended these workshops have autism, a small percentage have Down Syndrome, and the rest of the percentage is made up of other disabilities or multiple disabilities.  In the morning, the workshop is set up for children ages 5-17, which generally seems to skew to the 5-12 age group.  The afternoon is for 18+ adults.   Tours are led by an access educator, and they have gallery and studio time for a total time of 1-1.5 hours.

Kehinde WIley, Napoleon leading the army over the alps, 2005

A recent example of a Sunday workshop activity was done in conjunction with the Kehinde Wiley exhibit.  The group spends half an hour in the gallery with the works of art, and the gallery guide engages all members of the family with the art and subject.  Wiley’s art is generally a African American male subject in traditional portrait form with an elaborate backgrounds which are inspired by Jewish paper cut-outs.  In the studio, the family has a photocopy of one of the subjects that they can place on different backgrounds to explore how background, color, and shape can change the mood and expression of the art.  In the studio, the family creates a paper cut out from butcher paper that they can use as their own background for a family portrait taken in the studio.  Parental involvement is important at these workshops, and the museum wants to expand into a family day event with school partnerships.  Attendance at the workshops varies, but including the family (siblings, parents of the special needs child) there are usually 15-20 people in attendance, with 7-8 of the attendees being the special needs child/adult.  These programs are fully funded through grants, and they are free for the families.

Dara is responsible for all access educator training, and the group of educators meet 4-5 times a year to duscuss teaching strategies about specific art pieces, listen to talks by consultants to help on certain things such as dementia, general management, strategies, different disabilities, and more.

The Jewish Museum started creating these programs to expand and diversify their audiences.  They looked at who was coming to visit the museum, and then explored how they could better serve them.  It seems as if art museums have an easier time at adapting programs and drawing in the special needs audience.  One reason for this might be that art museums are more about experimenting with concepts and the abstract.  Concepts at history museums are somewhat more challenging to adapt.

Some tips that the Jewish Museum shared when working with special needs audiences are:

  • Sometimes open-ended questions can be very abstract.  If students are struggling to respond verbally to open-ended questions, try asking more concrete questions or narrowing the focus (i.e. focusing on a particular part of the painting like the figure or the figure’s clothing or the sky instead of asking general questions like “what’s going on in this painting”)
  • Sometimes yes/no questions can be useful, despite the fact that museum education courses usually stress the importance of asking open-ended questions.  Yes/no questions should be used in conjunction with open-ended questions, and with other activities that allow students to participate non-verbally (i.e. through sketching, movement exercises, etc.)
  • Giving the students the language to use helps (is this hard or soft?)
  • Reaching out to accessibility groups benefits other groups and the museum as a whole (wheelchair ramps can be used by people with strollers or knee problems)
  • Sensitivity and awareness training is important – educators are not the only ones who need to be trained
  • Security guards need to have some level of training to be comfortable working with people is disabilities.

I had a wonderful time at the Jewish Museum (in spite of being 10 minutes late because of a subway mishap), and I want to thank the museum and Dara Cohen for having me and discussing their programs openly with me.

What’s the story with this dissertation?

Starting on Monday, I will begin a series of posts about my dissertation and research trip to New York City… but first….

What is the story with this dissertation that I’m writing?  I have a feeling that my blog posts are about to start reflecting a lot more about my research and dissertation in the coming months.  I don’t presume that any of you have taken the time to read my proposal or bibliography, and looking back at past posts, it doesn’t seem that I ever explicitly stated my intents.  So please allow me take a moment to explain…

I am currently researching and writing my dissertation, which is titled, “Serving Under-served Communities in Museums and Historical Organizations: Creating Meaningful Public Programming.

One of the most simple ways to explain this is to share my abstract, “Throughout history there have been many populations that have been discriminated against or ignored by institutions and organizations of all types.  The same is true of museums, and some might argue that those problems still exist today.   Even with the Americans with Disabilities Act it seems that museums and historic organizations are still behind in reaching out to and welcoming people with learning or developmental disabilities.  This dissertation will explore past and current relationships and attempts at inclusion of people with developmental or cognitive disabilities, and possible alternatives and programming developed specifically for secondary education students who are in special education classrooms at museums and historical organizations.  This dissertation will also include a model for museums to use in developing programming and welcoming under-served populations into organizations.”

The park where it all began…

I can pinpoint the exact moment that this idea first popped into my head.  In April of 2011, I was attending the National Council on Public History conference in Pensacola, Florida.  Each day we walked through a park, and on one of the last days, my fellow student Rebecca and I were strolling back to the hotel through this park.  A group of adults from an assisted living program were having a gathering at the gazebo.  As we walked by, I realized that I had not really ever seen programs for children with special needs at museums.  I immediately got excited and started spouting out ideas to a confused and excited Rebecca.

Looking back to my own experiences in education departments at museums and historical sites and organizations, I realized that there is a severe lack of opportunities for people with special needs or learning disabilities and in many cases the complete nonexistence of programming for this group of people. Through this process, I will create programs for special education students that help them also see the world as an interconnected, diverse place where all are welcomed to interact and engage with the various communities in existence.

I will present information about how museums react to learning disabled visitors, as well as sensitivity and awareness to issues regarding these visitors, especially at the secondary level.  Lastly, I will present a model for museums to use to develop specific programming and exhibits for people with learning disabilities.

Coney Island Sideshows and Museum

The historical context for this dissertation is found in information about institutions such as the Mutter Museum of Medical Curiosities in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and at the Sideshows of Coney Island, New York and other places around the world.   By looking at the past treatment of people with disabilities by museums and exhibits in the not-so-distant past, where they were essentially treated as exhibits instead of valued visitors, I will investigate the history of these exhibits and offer alternatives to this previous relationship.

The Main Questions that I will address are:

  • —  How people with disabilities, predominantly students in special education classrooms, can be better served by professionals in the public history field, principally through educational programs in museums and historical organizations.
  • —  The past relationship between museums and people with disabilities
  • —  The history of special education
  • —  The history of museums as collections of curiosities
  • —  Why students in special education classes are not taken on more educational field trips
  • —  What the obstacles and challenges are to taking students on field trips, and why field trips to museums or cultural organizations would be beneficial as field trip sites.
  • —  Explore user-friendly tactics for students, teachers, aides, and museum professionals and staff members.

There are several outcomes that I hope to gain from my research and dissertation.  First, through historical context I hope to understand how the past informs the present, especially in relation to the way museums view people with disabilities.  I also want to create a model for cultural organizations.  Once this new model is established and in use, a new audience will be able to visit museums, which benefits the visitors and the museum for obvious reasons.  The field trips that will result from the programs will provide new opportunities for special education students and teachers.  And lastly, the dissertation will provide guidelines and best practices for sensitivity, awareness, and welcoming new groups to the museum or cultural organization.

This dissertation will also carry over into the future in many ways.  I know that within the writing year I will not be able to do everything, so I will have future research problems and questions.   I will also need to continue to raise awareness and work on marketing the model to both museums and teachers.  Eventually I would like to publish my dissertation either as a manuscript or as separate articles.  I’ve also gained a pretty strong interest in freakshows and sideshow, and I would love to write a scholarly article or book about that topic as well.  Ideally, this process will lead to consulting and working with cultural organizations to implement programs.

If you or someone you know has experience with special education in museums, please comment below or pass along this survey for special education teachers!

Over the coming weeks, I will be starting to post information about my recent research trip to New York City and other information as it develops.  Please join me on this adventure and share your thoughts, ideas, or comments with me!