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'The House on Henry Street' Exhibition (Part 2)

September 13, 2018

Yesterday, in the first installment of a two-part series, Kathryn Pyle explained how the new "House on Henry Street" exhibition came about. In part two, she talks to the people behind the project about the unique challenges they faced in trying to distill a hundred years of social work and history into a cohesive experience.

HSS_Intro panel"Given our limited resources and the small space, we realized that any attempt to describe the significance of Henry Street Settlement in the late nineteenth century and show its relevance to our time meant that it had to be a multi-platform project," historian and curator Ellen Snyder-Grenier told me when I met with her earlier this summer. "On-site displays of artifacts and text could only tell a limited story. We decided that short films could round out the history and a website could expand the exhibit, breaking down temporal and space limitations."

Keith Ragone, the exhibit designer, recommended creating a 450-square-foot gallery from two smaller rooms on the first floor of the agency’s original townhouse and then "extending" that physical space through the clever device of having two windows looking out onto a late-nineteenth-century streetscape.

Ragone and his collaborators were familiar with the extensive trove of still photographs from that era and selected a number for the exhibit and website, but they also wanted to incorporate moving images into the display. Snyder-Grenier's research led her to the Edison Company films collection at the Library of Congress.

"I was flabbergasted by the extent and scope of the collection," she told me. When she discovered the three-minute film New York City 'ghetto’ fish market, she knew she had found the key element for their "view from the windows."

Another surprise was the Visiting Nurse Service of New York Film Collection, a digitized archive housed at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts. The collection includes two hundred VNS promotional films, the earliest made in 1924. Lillian Wald herself appears in one from 1927; it’s in the exhibit and is embedded in a graphic timeline on the website that takes the visitor from the 1910s into the twenty-first century.

Cantos/ New Dances (1957) is a short film featuring the work of choreographer Alwin Nikolais, who established his dance company at the Henry Street Playhouse, later named the Abrons Art Center. Nikolais served for two decades as the artistic director of the center.

"Culture and the arts have been important from the beginning, and the Abrons Art Center has presented some of the most influential artists of our times," said Susan LaRosa, a marketing and communications officer at Henry Street for the past eleven years. "It was important that we acknowledge that, and the Nikolais film highlights one of our pivotal figures."

Another short film, commissioned for the exhibition, Baptism of Fire, tells the story of Henry Street, its place in the social reform movement, and of Wald herself, who saw health care as a right and established the model of visiting nurses in response to the dire conditions that prevailed on the Lower East Side in the early part of the twentieth century. Wald went out of her way to celebrate the distinct cultures of different immigrant groups, rather than trying to force on them an "American" identity, and was also a suffragette, helped found the National Women's Trade Union League and the NAACP, and involved herself in many other progressive issues.

"We wanted to create an atmosphere in the exhibit that would take visitors back to that era but at the same time reduce the distance between past and present," said Snyder-Grenier. "The films help create a more visceral connection to the past and convey a sense that these were real people. They also help to bridge differences in a way that Lillian Wald would have appreciated."

In addition to film, the team considered using other interactive digital tools. But cost and space were limiting factors, and, as exhibit designers have learned since digital tools became widely available, sometimes less is more.

"It's difficult to pack lots of screens and interactive tools into a small space," said Snyder-Grenier. "Plus there would be an issue of competing sounds. We wanted to create an ambience related to the outside world of the Lower East Side in the front gallery section, and to the inside, domestic world of the settlement in the second gallery area, showing all the people who have created and sustained Henry Street Settlement. So even with more funding we wouldn’t have added more digital tools or material objects. The space itself, with the original fireplace and baking oven from its time as a tenement residence, is already an artifact!"

LaRosa agreed. "The exhibition will bring the humanities, in addition to our services and programs, to our broad constituency. People will learn about their roots, their history. The exhibition, with all its varied components in the gallery and in the community, will make people think. It adds another dimension to what we do."

After my initial conversation with LaRosa this spring, I decided to visit the nearby Tenement Museum to learn more about the era depicted in the exhibit. I selected the "Sweatshop" tour, which takes visitors to a turn-of-the-century Jewish family's tenement apartment, replicated in minute detail. Somewhat unbelievably, the small living space at one time also functioned as a workplace, with the family producing piecework for the city's burgeoning garment industry. According to the Museum at Eldridge Street Synagogue, the vast majority of Jewish immigrants to the U.S. at the turn of the century, most of them from Eastern Europe and Russia, settled on the Lower East Side, making it, for a time, the most densely populated place on Earth.

Today, Henry Street Settlement, the Tenement Museum, and the Museum at Eldridge Street Synagogue honor that history while connecting it to the people who call the neighborhood home: the descendants of immigrants who came to America in the early twentieth century in search of a better life, as well as more recent arrivals from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and China (with Chinatown adjoining the traditional Lower East Side and supporting its own Museum of Chinese in America).

HSS_Work ExpandsDigital tools have enabled museums, historical sites, and cultural centers, in the U.S., and around the world, to share their collections and curated exhibits far beyond their walls while enriching the experience of visitors. "The House on Henry Street" project demonstrates what is possible when service and educational NGOs and their funders recognize and find ways to share the fundamental story at the heart of their ongoing work: how they have supported their communities over time and what history can teach us about how we got here.

"Now more than ever," Henry Street executive director David Garza told me, "we must be aware of our North Star on issues of social justice, inclusion, race, equality, and the welfare of the most vulnerable among us. Through this exhibit, our history serves as the ultimate point of reference in defining our values, not only as an organization but for society as well."

"The House on Henry Street" exhibition (free to the public) officially opens to the public September 17. Visitors to the museum-like exhibit at Henry Street Settlement (265 Henry Street) on New York City’s Lower East Side will see artifacts from the late 1800s, panels of photos and text tracking the agency's history, and the Edison film of nineteenth-century street life, which animates one wall. Visitors are welcome, Mondays through Fridays, 10:00 a.m.– 6:00 p.m. The exhibition website (www.TheHouseonHenryStreet.org), also scheduled to go live on September 17, invites virtual visitors on a walking tour and enables them to view images from the exhibit as well as excerpts of the films.

Kathryn Pyle is a regular contributor to PhilanTopic. You can read more of her posts here.

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