With tired feet today I arrived in the big smoke of New York City. I haul myself out of bed in the morning and prepare for the beginning of the second half of my trip. My cruddy, toothpaste stained Aesop toiletries bag gives me my morning inspiration in fine print under the lid – “Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.” Carl Sagan. “Thanks, Carl.” I say out loud. I’m pretty sure the people in the room next to me think their neighbours are a young couple called Dan and Carl. So be it.
The Tenement Museum
The Tenement Museum was one of the institutions practically every museum person I’ve encountered on my trip has said I should visit in New York City. And it definitely delivered. Knowing only that it tells the stories of migration and tenement living in a much older New York I go online several days earlier to pre-book (apparently this is a must). I sign up for the mysterious “Sweatshop Workers” tour but avoid finding out much more. I arrive just before my allocated 10:15am time to what is essentially mainly a gift shop in a modern building at the corner or Orchard St and Delancey in the Lower West Side. I check my backpack and browse the gift shop’s wares, waiting for something to happen. At 10:15 on the dot our tour guide Nina, dryly holds up a yellow wing reading “Sweatshop Workers” and we obediently gather around her. Nina, who I think is Russian is a strange combination of incredibly dry but extremely excited by her topic of expertise. She is instantly charismatic in her weirdness. She takes us outside and begins to paint the picture of pre-1905 Orchard St and the waves of Jewish immigrants, largely escaping the pogroms arriving in large boatloads in New York. This street, however was largely German Jews. She takes us up to 97 Orchard St and begins to explain how this building is a perfectly preserved tenement building of that era. The story goes that it was inhabited by immigrant families and sweatshops until 1935 when the City of New York introduced legislation requiring expensive fire safety precautions to be added to all buildings including the addition of the now ubiquitous fire escapes. The land lord of number 97, unable to afford such renovations evicted the entire inhabitants of the building and boarded it up. Again, this was back in 1935. Fast forward to 1989 and someone decides to remove the boards from the building to look inside. Somehow number 97 had avoided squatters for all of this period and was perfectly preserved in the same condition it was when the land lord stepped out and boarded up the front door in 1935. Amazing.
Nina takes us through several levels of the 5 story building telling the history of the tenants that lived there, verified by laminated census records that she hands around. Many cultural groups of immigrants were tenants however they were largely Jewish sweatshop workers or owners – the owners mostly having up to five employees coming into the cramped front room of the tiny apartments every day to provide clothing for the wealthy. Eventually as the sweatshops became bigger, the families went to the Garment District to work during the day and were able to enjoy their tiny dwellings to themselves. Nina talks us through the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire of 1911 in which 146 workers were killed after being locked in their workroom. This tragic incident, however gave rise to unionism and a stronger focus on workers rights.
The Tenement Museum's dark interior.
Amazingly, another visitor on the tour, an Israeli woman informs us all that her grandmother actually lived in this building. This moment of serendipity gives the whole place more life.
In the final room we visit, Nina tells us about an Italian woman who frequented number 97 they had worked with to uncover stories about the building. Using a key pad remote Nina activates hidden speakers where we can hear the woman’s voice telling the story about the bedroom window of the apartment we are standing in and how the elderly inhabitant would beckon her in, asking her to turn on the gas lights which she was prohibited from doing on the Sabbath. This is a beautiful story but is a slightly missed opportunity as we are standing in the lounge room, not the bedroom and are unable to see said window and imagine the woman beckoning from within.
This is a truly excellent museum experience to be had in New York City and we all fall out the back entrance smiling at the fact that we really felt like we all just stepped back in time.
Digital engagement: Fairly smooth UX when booking on the website. The strange digital key pad to activate that speakers was nearly an awesome addition. Much richer experience being lead by a docent.
The National September 11 Memorial & Museum
As we all know, on September 11 2001 American Airlines flight 11 and United Airlines flight 175 crashed into both the North and South World Trade Center buildings in a coordinated terrorist attack bringing both buildings crashing down. The event obviously had huge ramifications globally and deeply scarred the population of the United States but most specifically the people of the City of New York. As I’ve mentioned several times, since this event security in the United States has been hugely beefed up, most obviously for me at the many cultural institutions I have visited on this trip. And The National September 11 Museum is certainly no exception. In fact, the security procedure here feels much more like I’m entering the country again rather than just a museum. In fact, saying just a museum doesn’t give this place the respect it deserves. It is a truly brilliantly conceived experience that is in part museum, but more interestingly part art-work-cum-place-for-introspection. The museum itself is positioned between where the two towers once stood, now large deep, reflection pools encircled with the names of the dead. The museum is in a subterranean area where the foundations of the buildings once were.
Visitors are first confronted with a very large photograph of a sunny morning in New York. The view is from the east river where the twin tours can be seen standing tall amongst the many other sky scrapers of downtown NYC. Extruded lettering next to the photograph reads “About 8:30 am, September 11, 2001, Lower Manhattan, view from Brooklyn”. This tranquil image easily sets the scene.
The first image in the museum.
Another initial installation takes visitors past several ceiling-height panels with a series of projections on them showing a series of images of people staring up in horror, with shock and dismay on their faces. It was at this point that I realise that the very full museum is essentially completely silent.
Slightly dark projection panels.
Moving on and down a large ramp it is revealed that you are standing in a cavernous space between the two memorial pools visible at surface level. Large sections of the original pylons are revealed as well as huge, tortured and twisted iron remnants of the original towers hanging from above. Artful use of minimal projection, often using just text subtly add to the progression down into the depths. And minimalism really is the key here. Everything is spaced out and positioned to dramaturgical aplomb. One pillar has a collage of slides projected on it revealing many of the desperate posters, screaming for loved ones after the event.
Posters of the missing.
Further down the huge ramps and visitors can look down to a moving pair of artworks commissioned by the museum. ‘Trying to Remember the Color of the Sky on That September Morning’ by artist Spencer Finch is a series of 2,983 individual watercolours in a desperately sad attempt by the artist to recall the exact colour of the sky on the morning of 2001. Encased inside the watercolours, the second work ‘No Day Shall Erase You from the Memory of Time’ is a quote from Virgil in metal lettering by artist Tom Joyce. The letters themselves are created from smeltered down remnants of the Twin Towers.
The National September 11 Museum – interior (click to explore)
On the bottom floor visitors may visit more twisted, gnarled remnants of the disaster including a huge burnt out elevator motor and Ladder 3, a fire engine that was at the scene that is now sagged and partly melted. All of this continues the experience of airy space set up early in the museum. Visitors silently wander in what essentially is a space for quiet reflection and mourning. All that can really be heard is an audio recording from one exhibit that simply plays back relatives of the victims stating the names of the dead and their relationship to them.
At the core of the museum though, is a more dense visitor experience that takes you through all aspects of 9/11 chronologically. This is more of a traditional museum experience with densely packed exhibits and AV material. Oddly the tears came for me as I placed an earpiece to my ear to hear a recording of a misunderstanding between air traffic controllers that United Airlines Flight 93 had not in fact landed but had “oh…come down, come down”. This experience takes you through the events of the day and, in an interesting inversion gives you the context towards the end. It is here that the museum clearly points to Al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden and paints the USA as unwitting participants supplying assistance to to Saudi Arabia during the Iraqi invasion of Beirut at the request of the Saudi Royal family – this alone, it implies is what provoked Al Qaeda’s wrath.
This is an incredibly well executed museum experience whose artfulness provokes the emotional response it sets out to achieve. It genuinely affected me for a good many hours after the visit. Everything was done sparingly and incredibly tastefully. Except that on exit via the Oculus building (soon to be train station) the positioning of a Westfield shopping centre and, first up a very flashy Victoria’s Secret store is completely confounding.
Digital engagement: All of this is brilliantly done and used to perfect effect. The website contains digital tours and loads of information on the collection and allows you to pre-purchase tickets to avoid queues (highly recommended). A touch screen allows visitors to leave their own message for the museum and geo tag their hometown.
Leaving a message.
An audio tour can be accessed via devices on site or by downloading the app. The audio tour is split into three areas: one, hosted by Robert de Niro provides a broad overview. There is also a children’s tour and another focussed on architecture. These are great and really well done but don’t allow you to fully appreciate one of the museums most powerful attributes – silence. There is also a huge projection wall which aggregates 9/11 as a search term over time.