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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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.

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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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!

Guest Post: Contributory, Collaborative, and Co-Creative Experiences

By: Dr. Robert Connolly

In a recent issue of the journal Collections (Vol. 7, Number 3, Summer 2011), Natalye Tate and I published an article titled “Volunteers and Collections as Viewed from the Museum Mission Statement.”  Our central thesis is that museums should not view volunteers as folks who do things for which there are not enough staff to complete. Rather, we argue that museums as public institutions should view volunteers as integral to their mission mandates to provide educational and participatory experiences.

We use a scheme presented by Nina Simon in her book The Participatory Museum to model Contributory, Collaborative and Co-creative experiences for museum volunteers.  The model is also applicable in the field of public history.

Memory board at the Rock’n’Soul Museum in Memphis, TN

Contributory Experiences are those where the public has very limited input around specific projects that are controlled by the institution. The engagement is generally brief and limited in scope.  Oral history interviews, focus groups, ethnographic mapping, and a host of other types of experiences fall into this category.  The ever popular sticky note on the wall or memory board is a common example. The participant’s desire for an opportunity to contribute at least a piece of their story, experience, or response is achieved. The institution benefits through the active engagement with the community and obtains information from the public.

Collaborative Experiences are those where the public participate as active partners in processes that are ultimately controlled by the museum. The museum sets the broad parameters in which the public operates and actively collaborates and engages with participants to be certain the project is successful. The collaborative participant is trained or possesses the skills necessary to work under less direct supervision than in contributory projects. The collaborative participant begins to envision the institution more as a support for their interests and development opportunities with their community.

City of Memory Project

A good example of a collaborative experience in public history is the City of Memory project in New York.  The public is invited to upload videos of their stories of living in New York.  The program is administered through Local Projects that in turn completely relies on public collaboration to obtain stories for the project.  Without the public input the project could not exist.  However, Local Projects ultimately determines which stories are presented on the website.  This theme of participant control in digital space is taken up in Part I of the new release Letting Go: Sharing Historical Authority in a User Generated World edited by Bill Adair, Benjamin Filene and Laura Koloski.

Smithsonian “SITES” Affiliate

Co-creative Experiences are those where the public work directly with institutions to create products based on community interests.  Co-creative participants have considerably more latitude in the creative process. In co-creative experiences the primary function of the institution is to provide the tools and logistical support for product creation.  The institution also is charged with being certain that the process and final product remains within the project parameters as defined by the granting or governing agency. Co-creative participants have a vested interest in the project and its completion.

An example of a co-creative project is the local component of the Smithsonian traveling exhibit The Way We Worked created at the Orange Mound Community Service Center in Memphis, Tennessee.  A consortium of cultural heritage professionals including faculty from the University of Memphis Museum Studies Graduate Certificate Program worked with residents of Orange Mound to create a series of photographic and didactic panels on the concept of work in this traditional African-American community of Memphis.  The consortium of technical “experts” functioned in service to the community residents who completely determined the content of the local exhibit that included defining the very concept of work during the Jim Crow Era.

“The Way We Worked” at Orange Mound Community Center

Of importance, in the Collections article we note that the three types of Experiences are not to be viewed as a hierarchy.  Rather the three types of Experiences are correctly viewed as flowing directly from the specific research questions being asked.  For example, in considering the three above examples, trying to operate a focus group as a co-creative project could not work.  In the same way, the very nature of the Orange Mound exhibit required considerably more community engagement than a contributory experience.

However, all three types are participatory experiences.  Participatory experiences aid in demonstrating the relevance of cultural heritage to the public.  Whether in museums, government, or academic institutions, we function as public servants.  As professionals, we are all on the public dole one way or the other.  We must be accountable and demonstrate our relevance to the public we serve.  I believe part of that public service is an educational process where the public we serve learns to demand of us that we properly curate their cultural heritage.  In appreciation that need, the public also takes on the responsibility for adequately funding that process.  Participatory experiences are one tool for bringing about that mutual understanding.

Robert Connolly is an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Memphis and is the Director of the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa. Follow his blog at: http://rcnnolly.wordpress.com/

Sensitivity and Awareness at Your Museum or Cultural Organization

This blog has been a long time coming, but I have finally found some free time to get the blog back up and running.  Expect more this summer from former professors and students, a recap of my trip to New York City, dissertation and research updates, and more!

Seriously, best conference ever.

This past March I had the opportunity to once again attend my favorite yearly meeting, the Tennessee Association of Museums Conference.  Even better, I was a scholarship recipient, which was an incredible honor.  To top it all off, I also chaired a session called, “Your Museum: Compliance, Awareness, Sensitivity, and Outreach” with some other folks from Middle Tennessee State University’s PhD in Public History program.  My talk was on, “Sensitivity and Awareness – Steps to Take for Successful Connections.”

This talk stemmed from conversations about my dissertation and research in the residency colloquium I attended last academic year.  The idea is that museums are meeting requirements for ADA, but they are generally only doing the minimum as opposed to branching out to offer more accessible programs to diverse groups.  Before any radical changes can take place, I believe that museum staff must be trained on sensitivity and awareness techniques to use when working with disabled populations.  I wanted to share a few high points from my talk here online so others can take advantage of these options.

As I have said before,  in the residency colloquium in the PhD program, we were required to read selections based around each of our interests and research.  Prior to this, I had already decided that disability and museums would be integral parts of my dissertation research.  The class instructor took this into consideration while choosing our readings.  The special issue of the Public Historian, from Spring 2005, was all about disability and museums.  The articles range in subject matter from FDR to visually impaired visitor’s experiences at a museum to reviews of websites and books.

Presenting at TAM

Striking in this selection of readings were the first-hand accounts of people with disabilities and their experiences.  A lack of compassion, sensitivity, and even awareness was very present in their stories.  This led to discussions about what museums can do to welcome more people.  Also missing from the literature was the inclusion of those who have learning, cognitive, or developmental disabilities.  Since the implementation of ADA so much of the focus has been on wheelchair accessibility.  Accessibility for the sight and hearing impaired has also been embraced, but in many cases those with learning disabilities are forgotten.

As anyone who works in museums or at historical sites, many museums are small and short-staffed.  Resources and training are not always readily available for all staff and volunteers.  Through this blog post I hope to give some ideas and thinking points for small museums and staff members.

Here are some interesting numbers:

  • There are over 500 known disabilities. Common disabilities include: vision, hearing, speech, physical, and developmental.
  • From 2009 to 2010, the percentage of the total US population with a disability grew by 2.0 percentage points (American Association of People with Disabilities)
  • Currently around 10 per cent of the total world’s population, or roughly 650 million people, live with a disability (http://www.disabled-world.com)
  • There are more than 50 million people with disabilities in the United States today.
  • Many of those 50 million are elderly (a large percentage of museum-going population)

As the AAM reminds us, “access is not just a legal and moral obligation. Changes that increase access for those with disabilities can mean more visitors, since most people don’t attend museums alone. In other words, enabling one person with a disability to visit often brings at least two people to the museum.” (http://www.aam-us.org/pubs/mn/MN_JA06_richner-allaccess.cfm?renderforprint=1)

Here are some important tips on what to do when you have visitors at your museum who have a disability.  Some of these things may seem to be common sense, but they are still important to remember in your everyday interactions with visitors.

In general, people with disabilities are like everyone else, so try to treat them like anyone else.  Think through the other person’s mind – can they see your subtle, headshakes or nods?  Eye movements?  Can they hear sarcasm or inflections of your voice?  Can they reach where you are?

Using your words:

  • Always put the person first. Example: “the person who is blind” and not “the blind person”.  Emphasize abilities.
  • Don’t underestimate people with disabilities.
  • Avoid labels. Never refer to people by their disability. For example, don’t say “the handicapped, the crippled, the blind”, etc.
  • People sometimes use negative language without realizing it. Make sure to emphasize the positive.

Interacting:

  • Speak directly to the person with a disability rather than through a companion or interpreter who may be present.
  • Find the best way to communicate. The person may want to sign, fingerspell, lip read, or write notes.
  • Speak normally-don’t yell or exaggerate.
  • If you offer assistance to a person with a disability, wait until the offer is accepted, then listen or ask for instructions. Assisting without permission may cause serious injury.
  • Offer to shake hands or trade business cards when introduced. People with limited hand use or an artificial limb can usually shake hands. Offering the left hand is an acceptable form of greeting.
  • Use body language. It offers important clues about what you are saying.

Visual Disabilities:

  • Security guards should know how to accommodate the needs of blind patrons, and should be able to direct them clearly and helpfully
  • Always identify yourself and others who may be with you when meeting someone with a vision impairment.
  • Never touch someone with vision impairment unless they know you are there.
  • Offer your arm. Don’t propel or lead a person with a vision impairment.
  • If you meet someone with a guide dog never distract, pet, or feed the dog. If a service animal is distracted it may inhibit the service animal from doing its job.

Wheelchair/Physical:

  • Do not lean or hang on someone’s wheelchair. Bear in mind that people with physical disabilities treat their wheelchairs as extensions of their bodies.
  • Never patronize people who use wheelchair by patting them on the head.
  • Never move adaptive equipment outside the person’s reach.
  • Place yourself at eye level when speaking to someone who uses a wheelchair, scooter, crutches, etc.
  • Prevent a strained neck by standing a few feet away when talking to an individual in a wheelchair.

Mental:

  • People with mental impairment learn slowly and have a harder time using their knowledge.
  • Be clear and concise – don’t use complex sentences or difficult words.
  • Don’t talk down to the individual – in other words don’t baby talk. This won’t make it easier to understand.
  • Don’t take advantage of the individual. Never ask a person with a mental impairment to do anything that you wouldn’t ask a friend to do.
  • Be understanding and patient. People with mental impairments are often aware of their limitations, but they have the same needs and desires as everyone else.

The basics

The Association of Science-Technology Centers has a great website devoted to options for museums.  Below is a list from their website, http://www.astc.org/resource/access/index.htm

  • Become familiar with museums’ legal obligations.
  • Talk to people in your community. Conduct focus groups and surveys, form advisory groups , build relationships with people with disabilities.
  • Consult with community organizations for and about people with disabilities.
  • Call or visit other institutions that have services like those you want to offer.
  • Conduct an access survey
  • Consider what resources you already have available in your museum.
  • Provide staff and volunteer training about interacting with people with disabilities. Additionally, staff and volunteers need to know what services and equipment the museum provides, where to find them, and how to maintain and operate them.
  • Make high priority and low cost changes in accordance with your plan.
  • Seek national and local funding for high cost changes.

Other ideas include creating audio tours, written/captioned options for films or auditory parts of your museum, and creating picture books for inaccessible areas of the museum for those who cannot physical visit certain areas.  Accommodations can often be easily made,  and museums can also adapt presentation techniques (such as being sure the speaker is always visible to those with hearing loss, being aware that people who are blind may need visual information described verbally to them).

I’m sure many of you have ideas and ways that you have adapted.. please feel free to discuss and share these in the comments section!

Successful Accessible Museums

The Museum Access Consortium in NYC consists of representatives from various museum departments throughout the New York City Metropolitan area and members and representatives of the disability community. Members of MAC exchange information, ideas and resources and provide a network of mutual support. Museums such as,

MOMA, The Jewish Museum, Tenement Museum, and Transit Museum have taken advantage of the MAC and are in the process of working on great accessible programming.  I was lucky enough to visit these museums last month, and will be posting a blog on these museums, staff, and programs in the near future.

Homestead Museum in Los Angeles County, CA is also working on programs for adults with dementia and programs for people who reside at adult living centers.  The Nassau County Museum of Art in Roslyn Harbor, N.Y is a historic home with a small staff.  However, they initiated physical changes, including making a restroom accessible, adding ramps, renovating obstacles in pathways and acquiring county money to replace the elevator. Their full story can be found on the AAM Website – http://www.aam-us.org/pubs/mn/MN_JA06_richner-allaccess.cfm.

Additional Resources:

For those of you in the Nashville area, information about our upcoming workshop is available below:

Middle Tennessee State University’s Public History Program Presents:

 Disability and Your Cultural Organization: Sensitivity and Strategies for Going Beyond ADA

 Saturday November 3, 2012

9AM – 3 PM

at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, Tennessee

 Morning Sessions Include

 Keynote Speaker:

Krista Flores, Program Specialist, Smithsonian Institution Accessibility Program

 Additional Speakers:

Karen Wade, Director of Homestead Museum, Los Angeles County, California

Dr. Lisa Pruitt, Middle Tennessee State University

 Panel of various experts in the fields of education, museums, special education, recreation and more!

 Afternoon Breakout sessions will include case studies, information about specific issues, and think-tank opportunities.

 Registration Fees will include lunch and all workshop materials

 Please email Katie Stringer at mkatestringer@gmail.com for more details, questions, or registration information

Doctoral CANDIDATE Updates

Again, you may have noticed I have not been posting as much lately.  There are several excuses I could throw at you, but instead I will give you some quick updates!

– I spent most of the past month working on my dissertation proposal and online doctoral portfolio for review by my dissertation committee.  I defended them both on Friday, April 27th, and I passed!  I’m now officially a doctoral candidate and can start the long, arduous task of writing my dissertation.  Luckily, I’m really passionate and excited about my topic, so it should be an enjoyable process (other than the obvious struggles with bureaucracy, formatting, technology, etc).

– On that same note, I have been working on merging my professional blog with my doctoral portfolio, so let me know what you think of the site changes around here!

Sun Studio Visit with TAM

– I went to the Tennessee Association of Museums conference in Memphis in March as one of their scholarship winners… if you kept up with my twitter at all you know some of what went on there, but that only scratches the surface.  I have a blog in the works to review more of the conference, the sessions, the sights, and of course my own presentation on sensitivity and awareness of disabilities at museums.  Stay tuned for that in the coming weeks!

– I’ve also been finishing up teaching Explorations in Public History.  My students have been writing blogs that I post on their website, http://explorationsinpublichistory.wordpress.com/.  Check back soon, because I will be posting their final projects in the next week!  They were a wonderful class, and I look forward to seeing them as new public history professionals in the future.

– Next week I will head to New York City for a research trip!!  I will have all kinds of updates on my dissertation and ideas to talk about once I get back.  I am fortunate enough to have meetings set up with people from the Intrepid Museum, Jewish Museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York Transit Museum, Museum Of Modern Art, Lower East Side Tenement Museum, Coney Island USA, and people from the Museum Access Consortium.

Liberal Arts Awards Banquet

– As for other updates… I won the Bart McCash Memorial Scholarship for Graduate Students again this year!  My dissertation committee chair shared with me last week that Dr. McCash was his step-father and an influential person in his life personally and academically.  I’m honored to have been chosen as the recipient of a scholarship named for such a great person.

– I was elected to serve as the Graduate Student Association president for the 2012-2013 academic year.   I’m looking forward to serving the 3000 graduate students at Middle Tennessee State University!

SGA Awards

 

– April finished up my term as a graduate senator for the Student Government Association.  Serving as a senator was a wonderful experience, and I learned a lot.  Surprisingly, I was elected “Best All Around” senator, and the graduate students were named “Best Friends” by the Senate Superlatives.  We were treated to a lovely banquet on campus on my birthday, which I consider to be MTU’s birthday gift to me.

– So I had a crazy end of my academic semester, not to mention I bought art, had a birthday, watched a lot of trash TV, finished the Game of Thrones books, spent too much time looking at Tumblrs, got a radical haircut change,  and reorganized all of my bookshelves.

This summer should be more conducive to blogging, if I can squeeze it in among writing and researching the dissertation, traveling, working as a camp counselor at Camp Will in Franklin, Tennessee, and some quality lake time.  I have plenty to write about, so keep coming back!!

Thanks, as always, for reading.