Art/Memory/Place: Commemorating the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire: A Collaborative Project Between the Grey Art Gallery and NYU Graduate Students

Shirtwaist, in the style of c. 1911 Sewn by Alexandria Hoffman, Costume Studies, Steinhardt Visual Culture ‘11 Cotton, lace, and buttons Photo: Eric Michael Johnson for the New York Times

March 31, 2011
by Alana Rosen

When I first moved to New York, I didn’t know much about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. What I did know could be summarized by several key words: locked door, trapped workers, and fire. I’ve only lived in NYC for two years, I moved here for New York University’s Museum Studies graduate program. Many of the Museum Studies classes have been held in the Silver Center, the building adjacent to the Brown Building – formerly known as the Asch Building. Last fall, a course was offered to Museum Studies and Public History graduate students to create an exhibit on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire for the Grey Art Gallery – NYU’s fine art museum. I jumped at the chance to learn more about the workplace tragedy that occurred only steps away from my classes.

This was my first experience researching and developing an exhibit from start to finish. This was also the first time students collaborated on an exhibit for the Grey Art Gallery. On the first day of class, we all sat expectantly, as our two professors, Lucy Oakley – the Head of Education and Programs at the Grey Art Gallery, and Marci Reaven – the Director of Place Matters and a collaborator on the NYC Landmarking of the Brown Building, introduced themselves. Marci pointed out how remarkable it was that a class of sixteen women was going to create an exhibit about the Triangle fire, which affected mostly young immigrant women. The content and themes of the exhibit were going to be multifaceted. First, we were to examine the events leading up to the fire, a chronicle of the fire itself, and the occurrences after the fire. Then we were to record the fire’s legacy through the New Deal era, and to follow the commemorative efforts from the fiftieth anniversary in 1961 to the present. We wanted to conclude the exhibit with a call for continued vigilance and political reform for the protection of workers’ rights both in the United States and internationally.

The most practical approach to creating an exhibit with sixteen students was to break up into four teams, with each team tackling one of the four sections of the exhibit. I was part of section one. Section one focuses on the years 1909 to 1919, and it explores the strike of 1909, the Triangle fire, and the aftermath that ensued in the days and years following the fire. Over the course of the semester, we did extensive research, chose objects, and wrote text for the panels and labels that were to be mounted in the exhibit. Selecting objects was one of my favorite aspects of the exhibition process. One of the women in my group had a friend who constructed a shirtwaist for the exhibit. My group felt it was extremely important for visitors to see a representation of a shirtwaist. Lawn, a highly flammable material, was the fabric used to make the shirtwaists at the turn of the twentieth century. The flammability of the material was one of the major reasons the fire spread so quickly on that fateful day in March.

When creating the exhibit we had to be considerate of the different stakeholders that are involved in the commemoration efforts, and we had to respect the policies and aesthetics of the Grey Art Gallery. One of the greatest challenges was working together as a class. Of course each of us had a vision of what the exhibit should look like, but we were able to work together so our ideas became compatible.

Working on this exhibit was a wonderful experience. I learned more about myself in the process, such as understanding my strengths and weaknesses when working in a large group. Art/Memory/Place: Commemorating the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire has received an amazing response from the public, which makes the experience all the more valuable, because people are responding to our work. If you want to learn more about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire or become involved in the commemorative events for the 100th anniversary, make Art/Memory/Place at the Grey Art Gallery your first stop.

Art/Memory/Place: Commemorating the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire will run until March 26, 2011 and will re-open on April 12 to July 9, 2011. The Grey Art Gallery is located at 100 Washington Square East, NYC 10003. For more information, visit the Grey Art Gallery website.

–Written by Alana Rosen, co-curator of Art/Memory/Place: Commemorating the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire and M.A. Candidate in Museum Studies, NYU

This post originally appeared on March 24, 2011, on the Tenement Museum’s blog, and is reposted here by permission of Alana Rosen and the Tenement Museum.


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