Tenement Museum: Technology, History, & Contemporary Issues @ Shop Life

In March I had the opportunity to visit New York City again, and, as is usually the case, booked a space in the (arguably best neighborhood in the city) Lower East Side. There are a lot of things that make the LES the best, including food, architecture, and the relatively quiet streets, but one of the best attributes the LES can boast is the LowerEast Side Tenement Museum.

Reflections: Our wee group outside the Tenement

The Tenement Museum was a staple of my graduate education discussion groups, in part for their innovative interpretation and programs.  As I continued my education as a PhD student, the ground-breaking efforts to include people with disabilities in a (somewhat problematic) space became a focus of my research, and I’ve written about their efforts in previous blogs.

On this most recent trip, I met up with some fellow museum professionals in the city, and we booked tickets for the Shop Life tour.  This is the newest tour at the museum, and also the only tour within the actual historic building that is accessible for people with mobility issues.  The museum website describes the tour: “.. visitors explore the immigrant businesses once located at 97 Orchard Street, where communities worked, shopped, celebrated and struggled for more than a century. The exhibit features a re-created 1870’s German beer saloon once run by John and Caroline Schneider, as well as an interactive “sales counter” where visitors select audio and visual media clips to explore the stories of turn-of-the-century kosher butchers Israel and Goldie Lustgarten, 1930s auctioneer Max Marcus, and 1970s undergarment discounters Frances & Sidney Meda.”

Photo from the Tenement Museum website.

The tour started in the German bar set-up from the 1870s.  Our group was not a particularly lively group of tourists, but our tour guide made the most of it with interactive aspects of the tour as well as inquiry-based learning.  From the story of the Schneiders’ business, we went through the building to see rooms that are in various states of preservation or excavation.

Advertisement announcing the opening of Schneider’s Beer Garden in the LES

One of the coolest aspects of this tour, aside from the interpretation of a range of time periods and personal stories of the people who lived there, was the use of primary sources in the interpretation of the space. On my first tour of the museum in 2012 I noticed the commitment to the use of primary sources and photographs, and this tour was not an exception.  Advertisements, photographs, menus, announcements, and other sources all provided that tangible connection to the past that museums and interpreters seek to impart.

Perhaps the best part of the tour, however, was at the end, when we were able to engage in active learning and visitor choice using some pretty cool (and not distracting or problematic or difficult) technology.  Technology can be the bane of some museums and exhibits as it often needs updates, breaks, or is rife with user errors. We entered the interactive space, where each person was given space at a table with projected instructions.  We each chose an artifact from the shelves behind us that we wanted to know more about.  The artifacts told the stories of the people, businesses, neighborhood, and historical context who lived and worked in the space where we stood.  We could explore as much or as little about these artifacts and their associated stories before moving on to another item/time period/story.

Lately the Tenement Museum has been in the news for their activism (and the subsequent backlash against that activism) regarding immigration.  The stories of the Tenement Museum would not exist without immigrants.  At the end of our tour, the guide played a short film about a current immigrant business owner who lives and works in the neighborhood of the museum.  She encouraged us to visit his and other immigrant shops throughout the city.  This activism and the commitment to the community surrounding the museum is what museums should be all about.  Connecting the past to the present makes the experience more meaningful and impactful.  I hope to explore these themes and topics more in the future.

I can’t wait to go back and try another tour! Have you been to the Tenement Museum?  Which tours did you take, which would you recommend, and why?

 

 

What is a “freak”?

What constitutes a freak?

What constitutes a freak?

A section of my dissertation discusses the meaning of freak, and what exactly the term “freak” means.  In the study, I relate the sideshow and freakshows of the past (and sometimes the present!) to exhibitions in museums.

Webster’s online dictionary defines “freak” as: “one that is markedly unusual or abnormal: as a person or animal having a physical oddity and appearing in a circus sideshow.”

Photo from Wikipedia "freak" entry. Their caption reads, "Julia Pastrana, a woman of unusual appearance."

Photo from Wikipedia “freak” entry. Their caption reads, “Julia Pastrana, a woman of unusual appearance.”

Wikipedia says, “In current usage, the word “freak” is commonly used to refer to a person with something strikingly unusual about their appearance or behaviour… An older usage refers to the physically deformed, or having extraordinary diseases and conditions, such as sideshowperformers. This has fallen into disuse, except as a pejorative, and (among the performers of such shows) as jargon.”

To historian Robert Bogdan, “freak” may be a frame of mind, a set of practices that person employs, or a way of thinking about and presenting people. Sideshow U.S.A. by Rachel Adams defines freakishness as “a historically variable quality, derived less from particular physical attributes than the spectacle of the extraordinary body swathed in theatrical props.”

Rosemarie Garland-Thomson is a disability historian who analyzes disability and the freak show.  She says, “Freaks are above all products of perception: they are the consequences of a comparative relationship in which those who control the social discourse and the means of representation recruit the seeming truth of the body to claim the center for themselves and banish others to the margins.”

Coney Island Sidshow Entrance, 2008.

Coney Island Sidshow Entrance, 2008.

By labeling a person a freak, the sideshow takes away the humanity of the performer because he or she might not have the same physical characteristics of the “normal” person, and authorizing the paying customer to approach the person as an object of curiosity and entertainment.  To reconcile the exploitation of people who were different as curiosities worthy of admission price, society had only to take away the humanity of those individuals.

The shift from “born different” to “self-made” freaks in sideshows and other displays is shown in the sideshows of Coney Island today, television shows and movies.

Cast of "Freakshow" on AMC

Cast of “Freakshow” on AMC

A promotional video for the new television program called Freakshow premiered on the American Movie Channel in the fall of 2012.  The show follows the Venice Beach Freakshow performers in a reality show format.  The promo features several individuals with physical disabilities.  The main character, owner and performer Todd Ray, states in the promo, “freak is one of the most positive words I can think of; for us freak means normal.”

In addition to the live sideshows of Coney Island and Venice Beach and the new program Freakshow on the cable network AMC, many television programs take on the circus midway sideshow.  As technologies and interests grow and change, perhaps this is simply the next evolution in the presentation of “the other” for entertainment at home.

Perhaps today society is more comfortable watching, asking questions, and gawking at the different people with disabilities or different proclivities than they would be in a public forum.

How do you define “freak”?  How did sideshows and freakshows of the past influence exhibitions today?

Coney Island, USA

Coney Island, USA Museum and Sideshow Building

After a week of culture and exploring New York, and a wonderful morning at the Transit Museum, I headed over to Brooklyn and all the way to the end-of-the-line: Coney Island.  I arrived early to get a Nathan’s hot dog and to wander around the board walk area.  Then I walked over to the Coney Island Museum where I was to meet Dr. Jeffery Birnbaum to discuss the display and performance of people with disabilities in sideshows.  This blog is a segue into a new series of blogs on exploitation, sideshow history, disability history, and more.

Dr. Birnbaum is on the Board of Coney Island USA and also a physician who has been studying sideshow performers with physical disabilities.  Additionally, he is a Pediatrician with HEAT (Health and Education Alternatives for Teens) of which he is the founder, director, and physician.  His specialty is treatment of HIV+ youth, and he provides medical care for HIV+ and at-risk children, including LGBT youth.  More information about this fascinating work is available at HEAT’s website, http://www.heatprogram.org.  Dr. Birnbaum has also studied Sideshow Performers, Congenital Malformations, Disabilities and the Medical Community.  This is what we met to talk about on a Thursday in May at the Coney Island Museum.

Coney Island Beach, 1938

Coney Island of today is very different from that of the late 1800s and pre-War era of the twentieth century.  Luna Park and Dreamland are no longer visited daily by the masses, and the beach was empty while I was there, which is a stark contrast to the images of Coney Island from the past.  However, there are still some organizations and small businesses that continue to share the history of this fascinating place and preserve that history for future generations.

One of the biggest attractions in the past at Coney Island, and in circuses and traveling exhibits throughout the world, was the sideshow.  Many times, children with seemingly strange differences were taken from their families to travel the world to be gawked at by tourist paying a nickel to see the strange and unknown.

Today, Coney Island still operates one of the only sideshows in the country.  Their website proclaims, “SIDESHOWS BY THE SEASHORE is the last permanently housed place in the USA where you can experience the thrill of a traditional ten-in-one circus sideshow. They’re here, they’re real and they’re alive! Freaks, wonders and human curiosities! “  More information is available at: http://www.coneyisland.com/sideshow.shtml.  Dr. Birnbaum, as mentioned above, has studies sideshow, disability, and medicine, so he was a great source to speak with regarding my research.

When we arrived, they had just wrapped up their annual “Congress of Curious Peoples” (I am currently taking donations so that I can attend next year!), and Dr. Birnbaum told me about the 2012 Inductees into the Sideshow Hall of Fame and his nomination of Seal-o the Sealboy in the Born Different category.  This is the kind of information I was looking for in my research as opposed to the self-inflicted “freaks” that dominate shows today!

Dr. Birnbaum and I discussed many aspects of sideshows and people with disabilities, and he told me about several people he knows who do participate in sideshows or other types of shows to raise awareness about disability issues.  One example is Matt Fraser, a “seal boy” or person with phocomalia, who is a disability rights activist who uses his disability in his act.  He uses the disability to make the audience uncomfortable for laughing and having fun, since almost all people are conditioned not to.

He explained to me that in the past, the disability community often viewed people who performed to be taking place in something equal to pornography.  Today, however, many in this population see it as a rock’n’roll career.

Zip

I’m interested in the “born different” people from the past, but most especially those with cognitive developmental delays, medically called those with mental retardation.  This will be spoken about much more in my research to come.  I have come across several examples of this such as Zip and Pip, and Schlitzy, who were referred to as “pinheads”, and Zip the “What is it?” who may or may not have had microcephaly.

My next blog will feature a Q&A with one of the Coney island Performers, Black Scorpion.  The website describes him as, “a human oddity known for his bizarre & surreal stage performances, from future Austin, Texas. He is unlike any other performer, for he was not born of our time like you or I. When you see him perform you will understand how nature’s beauty takes shape in many different forms. Witness his attempts to change preconceived negatives into a positives throughout space & time.”  You can read more about him at: http://www.coneyisland.com/per.blackscorpion.shtml

two-headed deer souvenir

The museum has a bar and a great giftshop (also available online at: http://shop.coneyisland.com/) with Coney Island beer as a specialty and incredible one-off art such as my pink and green two-headed deer.

I encourage you to become a member of Coney Island USA to help build this area of New York back to a semblance of what it used to be.  The Unofficial Mayor of Coney Island, Dick Zigun, and the wonderful folks at Coney Island, USA (the non-profit arts organization) are doing great things at this historic site, and they can do much more with your donation.  For obvious reasons, I would love to be able to be a “Sideshow Professa,” and who wouldn’t?

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Programming at The Transit Museum

As I mentioned in my last blog, my trip to the Transit Museum in Brooklyn, run by the Transit Authority, was one of my most favorite parts of my time in New York City.

How cool is this entrance??

On Thursday, still excited from my wonderful meeting with Lori, I headed over to Brooklyn to visit the Transit Museum (and the Pierogi Gallery later that morning, AND some good Vinnie’s Pizza, AND THEN Coney Island!).  After a weird Dunkin Donuts experience and walking the wrong way for a while because the NYPD cop on the corner lied and said the museum was right down that road, I finally found the entrance to the Transit Museum.

I descended down the steps into a subway station that has been cut off from the running lines.  At the “ticket booth” I asked for Lynette Morse, and then we went down to the tracks for my meeting with the educator.  As I mentioned before, the site contains many trains from throughout the subway history that visitors can go through and explore.

I had heard a lot about the opportunities that the Transit Museum offers to children with special needs from other museums I had met with throughout the week, from the MAC website, and from Lori the previous day.   I was excited to see and hear first-hand about these offerings.  Lynette and I chose a train car to sit in and began our conversation.

When these programs first got started, the museum had a goal to focus on better programming for the audiences that were already coming to visit the museum.  There were many special education groups visiting, but there wasn’t any special programming in place yet.  Students were visiting to study New York history and compare the past to the present.  This museum is perfect for the students to be immersed in history, since it is an actual historical site.

Many of the older student groups that were coming to the museum has more severe disabilities and they were there to learn life skills such as how to ride the subway.  Since the trains there are in a safe environment, don’t move, and are similar to the “real” trains in the city, this is the perfect place for students to learn.   Visitors to the independent living program would come to the museum multiple times to learn about safety and proper behavior on a train.  For instance, students were taught not to stare at people, how to sit or stand depending on the other people on the train, where to sit, how to interact with other people and more.  One of my favorite anecdotes about this program is the involvement of the staff.  During this program, many staff members participate as “angry New Yorker subway riders.”  They even have staff act as panhandlers to teach the participants how to interact (i.e. – don’t reach in and take money from the panhandlers’ cups).  This is a great example of a museum really interacting with its community not only to tell the history of the site, but to also help the visitors with their needs.

Another opportunity the site has is an after-school program called Subway Sleuths.  This program meets once a week for ten weeks and is offered to students with autism.  The program helps to build social and communication skills while also teaching some history.  Subway Sleuths teaches the history of transit, electricity and science, and more.  This is EXACTLY what I was looking for in my research, and this is a great model for other sites!  The students have the opportunity, in the safe subway station environment to put their hands on the history.  They also learn social skills by using historical objects and situations.

The museum works with special education teachers and speech and language pathologists in addition to their museum educators.  Their programs are very popular with around 8 classes coming to the museum per week.  The museum employs one educator to work with students in the 4th grade and above and another to teach pre-K to 3rd grade.   The educators also have degrees in Special Education as well as museum education backgrounds.

Subway Station Exhibits

The museum is also not just modifying existing programs for special needs students but creating all new programming opportunities.  One program uses a visual magnetic board with images.  This can help students to build on what they already know.  In the train cars, students will look for five things such as lights, seats, doors, advertisements, holds, or other features.   They will then compare and contrast these characteristics in trains from various time periods.  If they start at the newest train and work their way back, they will realize that as they go back in time there is no longer air conditioning, plastic, etc.  This site is really perfect for immersion in history and being able to truly time-travel to see the changes.

In structuring tours for children with special needs, the educators saw that language was important.  Educators use the inquiry method: “is this train newer or older than the last train we were in?”  Thinking about using language in a particular way can be over-whelming.  Using declarative language can also be helpful in getting students to talk.  Educators might say, “This train looks really old to me!” to elicit responses from students telling what it is that they notice about the train.

Programs are evaluated by teachers and parents.  In the past, teachers were given a one page evaluation with a postage-paid envelope.  Unfortunately there was only about a 29% return rate of these evaluations.   Teachers are busy, as we all know, and sometimes evaluations can get lost in the slew of lesson plans, teaching, and being in the classroom.  Now the museum asks teachers to write bullet points to evaluate how children are doing and progressing, they ask the parents for feedback, and they make sure there are different goals for each child to meet.

Overall, this is one of the best museums I have been to.  The whole site is interactive, there are things to touch and climb on, visitors can pretend to drive a bus, hand out subway tickets, and go through old-timey turnstiles.  The museum even incorporates science and technology into the history through discussions of electricity and production.  I wish I had had more time to go through the museum and enjoy all aspects, but instead, I will post some pictures below from my adventures at the Transit Museum.

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Meeting with Lori Stratton, Educator and Consultant

Inside Grand Central

On Wednesday May 9th, I went to Grand Central Station to meet with Lori Stratton, a Special Education Museum Educator at the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum and the Program Coordinator and Consultant for her company, It Takes a Village in New York City.   She has a degree in Recreational Therapy which provides a fresh look on museum program development.  It was a delight to meet Lori, who I instantly felt knew what I was thinking and what I wanted to do with my dissertation.  Lori has worked in museum education at several places around New York City, including the Transit museum (more about them in the next post!), and she has focused one bringing rec therapy and history to students with special needs.  Perfect!

After I spent a few minutes awkwardly looking around the station for Lori with her Intrepid staff jacket, we met and went to get coffee at a nice little café.

The part of the conversation that sticks out most clearly in my mind from our meeting is the discussion about HISTORY museums and historic sites and how they can reach out to students with special needs.  So many of the places working with this population are art museums, which is fabulous!  But why shouldn’t history museums embrace this population more widely?  At historic sites and in museums students can actually be immersed in the history, which is a great way for them to learn and get something out of the experience.  Anyone can look at art or historic objects online, but actually seeing it in person gives people an indescribable connection to that piece and its history.  Objects and artifacts are extremely powerful for telling stories; you can have someone as simple as an everyday serving platter and from that you can tell stories about that time period, the people who used it, how it was made, who made it and where, how it got where it was when it was found, and countless more stories that help people build a connection with the past.

Another thing that sticks out is the use of popular culture.  I’ve talked about using popular culture with college age students before, and the same theory goes with any student: find something to relate with them about whether it’s Captain America or the movie 300.  Popular culture can be key with any historic site; find your connections with super heroes, songs, video games, tv shows, etc.  History museums and exhibits can also relate history to everyday life, which is a good tip for all historic sites and museums at any time, really.  Drawing connections is one of the best ways that students learn in informal settings.

In her time at the Transit Museum, Lori helped to develop and present several programs for children with special needs, especially those with autism.  I’ll talk more about these in next week’s recap of my trip to that museum, but here are some highlights from our conversation.  The museum is in a now-unused subway station that has examples of train cars from the early 20th century to today.  This is a great environment for students to see the past and today right next to each other, and they have the opportunity to go inside the trains and see first-hand the differences and similarities.

Transit Museum train exhibits

The Transit Museum had several techniques for learning that I found fascinating.  One is that students are given paper to draw their observations; they could draw the different types of lighting fixtures, advertisements, seats, etc.  This especially gives students who are non-verbal a chance to communicate or ask questions.  Another activity used photographs of the trains and a timeline.  The educator would use the photos to match the old and the new and put them into order.  This also gives students who are non-verbal the chance to express themselves and what they learned on the tour as a sort of evaluative process.  Educators also gave teachers a checklist to evaluate what/of students were learning.

When working with students with special needs at any museum there are several things to keep in mind.  If your museum has 8 exhibits, for example, pick 3 or 4 t talk about and adapt the program that day to the student attention spans and interest.  Don’t necessarily go over specifics; keep the students moving and pay attention to their needs.  Lori explained that in her experience a 30 minute program is generally too long for a special needs audience  to be in one place in a museum unless engaged in an activity.  Depending on the age and diagnosis, you can still do an hour tour (longer is pushing it though) but the important thing to remember is to keep them moving.   There can be many distractions and struggles during these programs, so remember to stay flexible and be tuned into your audience.  Try to find a space in the museum that is quiet with few visual distractions to decrease external stimulus when speaking with the group.  Make sure this is also a safe environment for students to feel comfortable in to better their learning experience.  This is something that I will talk about much more extensively in my next blog about the Transit Museum and their life-skill programs.

Unless an educator invites you to!

As in any museum education program, having a tactile component is very important.  Having objects, whether they are authentic or reproductions, is important to the learning process.  Holding, seeing, touching these objects helps to build connections to the past and the curriculum at hand.

Lastly, we spoke about the importance of training all staff members at a museum, not just the educators.  It is important for security and janitorial staff to know the basics, such as not to touch a child with autism (or any child, really).  All staff should also know not to diagnose the children themselves (because it doesn’t matter), and not to judge the students in any way.   It is also important for all staff to know general basics of teaching children with special needs, especially to keep calm and flexible.

Some basic tips I wrote down from our meeting:

  • Remember that the students might be older but at a younger learning level.  Don’t take a first grade program to use with 7th grade students.
  • Special Education classrooms can have various levels of learners (like any classroom).  Remember to scale down the information intellectually but keep things socially the same as you would with any group of that age
  • Compare and Contrast with concrete facts is helpful (is this artifact from the past or present, why?)
  • You can NOT be rigid; educators in this field must be flexible and willing to adapt to the students’ needs
  • Keep the students moving and don’t talk too much!
  • Ask teachers before the field trip what their goals are for their students on this trip; what can the museum do for them?
  • Experiential learning is particularly important in this type of educational setting (for any student).
  • Engage the students in the past, and slip in curriculum

I enjoyed my meeting with Lori immensely, and I look forward to sharing more research ideas and information with her; she is a font of information and experience!  If you are in the Greater NYC area and are interested in learning more about consulting services that she offers, be sure to check out her website, It Takes a Village New York!

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.

New York City – A Review of the Met

I love NYC!

Over the coming weeks I will be posting reflections on my trip to New York City in May.  I was fortunate enough to have support from the College of Graduate Studies and the Public History Program at Middle Tennessee State University to spend a week in the Big Apple visiting museums and professionals in the city who have similar research interests.

I visited the Jewish Museum, Museum of Modern Art, the Tenement Museum, and the Transit Museum.  I also met with an educator from the Intrepid who specializes in accessible education programs, and I visited with the President of the Board at Coney Island.  In my limited free time I also visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art and experienced the greatest and most diverse city in this county.   Needless to say, I had a wonderful time and learned more than I could imagine.   This trip really helped to kick-start my dissertation research.

Greco-Roman Exhibits

The first experience I want to share is my visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  In my mind I built up this great museum that has set precedence for museums around the world and stood as a pillar in the ancient art sector.  As I rode the subway north to the Museum Mile, I was excited to see Greek vases, Roman statues, and the Egyptian collection that I had longed to see in person since watching When Harry Met Sally.  I walked up the stone steps towards the Greco-Roman façade of the building with hopes and dreams of what I was about to experience.

Once inside, I realized this was not going to go quite as well as I had planned.  I walked through the hall with Greek and Roman artifacts that I had studied in the past and seen in books and on documentaries.  At first I was thrilled to see these objects; black and red pottery from Ancient Greece, a Roman sarcophagus, and even the recreation of a bedroom in a Roman villa.  As I continued on throughout the museum, a sense of disappointment began to grow within me.  By the time I made it to the Egyptian section I was trying to force myself to have a good time and enjoy the museum.

At the Chapel of Perneb

As I ventured through the Egypt exhibits, I had several thoughts.  First of all, the exhibit opens with the mastaba of Perneb, which is an offering chapel from the Old Kingdom.  Of course it is thrilling to walk through this building that dates from around 2450 BCE; however it also felt really weird to have this building inside a museum in New York City, thousands of miles from its original home.  This goes back to the unanswerable question of having objects in museums that are not in the context that they were originally.  Obviously I’m excited that so many people get to see this chapel and experience walking through it that might not otherwise have the chance to go to Egypt, but it still felt wrong to have it in a place so far removed from the Old Kingdom in Egypt.  I had similar feelings in the Sackler Wing with the Temple of Dendur.  For one thing, the water wasn’t running, so my illusion of Harry and Sally meeting in the Met was ruined.  Also, how many of those grubby handed children were touching the walls of the temple?  Granted, the temple would have been under Lake Nasser after the construction of the Aswan Dam.  Somehow, it still felt wrong to me.

ALIENS!? Having no interpretation, this is the obvious answer.

Another glaring problem for me was that there were so many statues, works of art, stelae, and more, but nothing was historically interpreted or explained to the extent I would have wanted.  This is something that I have always seen as a major reason that I have a problem with art museums.   I know that interpretation  isn’t their area of focus necessarily, but it is still disturbing to me.  This lack of explanation just makes me think that it is no wonder people aren’t very interested in ancient history. I have posted about this problem before, and the problem has yet to cease irritating me.  The presentation of ancient history in art museums is not personal or exciting.  When a jar is placed on a shelf and the date, material, and accession number is on a tag, people are less likely to want to go home and learn more about that wavy line red ware black line pottery fragment.  Why is it important?  What does it signify?  What can we find out about the person who owned that piece of pottery for?  What did they use it for?  What did it mean to them?  Perhaps gallery guides and educators address these issues more, but will the average person walking into the museum go on one of these tours?

JCD is not impressed.

Perhaps some of my issues with the Met also go back to the pre-John Cotton Dana idea of museums as elite, gargantuan, foreboding structures that are not open to everyone in society.  The outside of the Met definitely conveys the feeling of an “old world museum” and perhaps that is where my trepidation began.  Dana believed that libraries and museums should be, “vibrant community centers instead of collections of relics that only appealed to a small segment of the community.”  What would he think about the Met today?  More information on “The Gloom of the Museum” is available for free on Google books by clicking this link.  

Washington Crossing the Delaware

On a much more positive note,  I very much enjoyed the American art sections which is something in the past I have never particularly enjoyed.  American history, American art, American literature, and more have never been my favorite things to study.  However, seeing Washington Crossing the Delaware in all of its gigantic beauty after always seeing it in grade school textbooks was something I will remember.  Perhaps it is because I had a more personal connection and history with that piece.  The works of Thomas Cole were also impressive to me, and I very much enjoyed studying the nuances of his work and thinking about the encroachment of Americans into the west with “Manifest Destiny”.  I also liked the armor and weapons wing, and I especially enjoyed seeing Henry VIII’s field armor.

There are many factors that could have played into my overall dissatisfaction with the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Perhaps I had not had enough coffee, maybe I was somehow expecting a history museum instead of Art museum (but – duh museum of ART).  Unavoidable obstacles also stood in the way of my expected pilgrimage to the great museum.  There were crowds, there was also some construction going on throughout the museum that meant wings were closed, objects were moved, and things weren’t quite as “pretty” as they usually were.  Another thing that could not be avoided was that many artifacts in the Egyptian collection were in a different exhibit way across the museum,  which made it hard to experience the entire exhibit.

But the fact remains that my experience at the Met was not an overall positive one, and I might not visit again.  Next time I am in New York, perhaps I will better prepare myself before visiting if I do decide to return to the Met.

My friends who are art professors were horrified by my proclamations that I did not enjoy the Met, however many friends in public history or museum studies understood my feelings.  Have any of you had great or terrible experiences with the Met?  What would you change or not?

Images from my visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art:

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