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.