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.

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/