May 11, 2011
by Ilana Weltman
My work in co-curating the Grey Art Gallery’s exhibition Art/Memory/Place: Remembering the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire ended in early December. I did not anticipate all the activities I would become involved in after that, which truly wove together my love of history and education. At the Grey’s opening reception on January 11, 2011, I felt very grateful to my professors and friends for showing their support and attending. I introduced them to the exhibition and met Sheila Nevins, president of HBO Documentary Films and executive producer of the then-yet-to-be-released film Triangle: Remembering the Fire; her great aunt Celia Gitlin is interred in the monument to Triangle victims at Mt. Zion Cemetery in Maspeth, Queens, which is pictured in the Grey’s exhibition. I also met the HBO film’s director, Daphne Pinkerson, who was kind enough to invite me to the film premiere. My first interaction with the public was at the curators’ gallery talk on February 2 which, although nerve-racking, was a great way to introduce the themes of the section I worked on to interested people. One man in the audience really challenged us with his questions, and one twelve-year-old girl astonished us with her knowledge of the fire. At the Brown Bag Lunch discussion presented by NYU’s program in Archives and Public History on March 4, I was more at ease, and I enjoyed this more intimate opportunity to share our curatorial experience. Afterwards, an audience member proudly showed me a photograph of himself at the Triangle fire ceremony at the Hebrew Free Burial cemetery—which had made it into Jewish Week.
I also took the opportunity to observe Grey intern Kim Fry’s gallery talk for a fourth-grade class from Little Red School House, who visited the exhibit to reinforce their classroom knowledge of the Fire. It was so refreshing to see their inherent curiosity as they approached each artifact. My nerves escalated once more as I gave a tour to my own classmates in Professor Harold Wechsler’s Social Context of Jewish Education course, a requirement in NYU Steinhardt’s Masters program in Education & Jewish Studies. I prepared heavily for this tour, designing it especially for the class. Fortunately, my classmates were very enthusiastic, and I received much positive feedback. After the tour we went to the classroom and discussed the social context of Jewish-themed exhibitions, raising the questions: Why hasn’t the Jewish community claimed the Triangle fire’s history as their own, and how can Jewish schools teach that history? After our class tour and discussion, one of my classmates used the Triangle Fire in his own classroom, and another classmate wrote a terrific blog post. Following this tour, something remarkable happened. During the tour, I had explained that my own great-grand aunt, Rebecca Reiss, had been the first among her family to immigrate to the U.S. because of her superb seamstress skills. After class, the nephew of Rebecca’s sister, Rose Reiss, my long-lost relative, found me on Facebook! He had discovered the Reiss family portrait I had posted on the Triangle Fire Open Archive. My involvement in the Triangle fire project had reconnected me with family!
Another exciting opportunity presented itself as the centennial approached. Professor Oakley reached out to ask if any of her students would be interested in appearing on Rabbi Harlan J. Wechsler’s Sirius/XM satellite radio show on the Triangle Fire. I was elated—what an exciting opportunity! The rabbi was fascinated by the fire; one of his congregants was the daughter of David Dubinsky, a longtime president of the ILGWU. In order to calm my nerves about appearing on the radio show, I made a little cheat sheet so that I wouldn’t forget anything important. The Rabbi asked me to send him questions prior to the show, so that he would know what to ask me. I did, but he ended up asking me different questions! After a few “ums” at first, I felt comfortable talking on the air.
Finally, the long-awaited day of the Triangle fire’s centennial commemorations at NYU’s Brown Building—March 25, 2011—arrived. I didn’t realize that the ceremony was going to be hard to get into. Apparently, only politicians, family members, and other lucky people were invited into the area near the podium. I went up to a police officer and explained that I am a co-curator of the Grey’s Triangle fire exhibition. She didn’t care. I wasn’t getting in. I pleaded a bit, and finally, she told me to walk in with the class of kids passing by another officer. No one noticed; I am short and blended in well with the children. The centennial ceremony was well worth sneaking into. The best part of the commemoration was the procession of shirtwaists held up on poles. I took many photographs of them swaying in the wind. The most compelling speaker was the relative of a Triangle fire victim, and her account of how one sister lived and the other perished. After the commemoration ceremony, I participated in the Chalk project, visiting the street addresses of two girls who had perished in the fire and chalking their names and ages on the sidewalk (for more on this and other contemporary artworks on the fire, see the Grey’s show).
While the centennial commemoration provided an appropriate culmination of my current involvement with the project, I do hope I will find future opportunities to work on Triangle fire commemorations. I would like to create an educational kit for Jewish day schools to teach the Triangle fire, as part of their study of Jewish-American history. I am so grateful to my professors for encouraging me to participate in the educational events, which greatly enriched my life this year. I am also very grateful to my advisor in Judaic Studies, Professor Wechsler, for encouraging me to take this class once I had discovered it. The Jewish Education & Judaic Studies Masters program at NYU is a student-centered program that addresses our own personal interests. Never before did I have such a marvelous opportunity to tangibly create something out of my studies.
And now I encourage you, my readers, to check out our exhibition at the Grey!
–Written by Ilana Weltman, co-curator of Art/Memory/Place: Commemorating the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire and M.A. Candidate in Education & Jewish Studies and Hebrew & Judaic Studies, NYU