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Connecting Museums: Eldridge Street Educators Visit Programs Around the City

on Wed, 11/30/2011 - 5:17pm

Photo credit: Peter Aaron/ Esto

"I view learning as ongoing throughout one's life and welcome the challenge of this new experience," says Jan Kampel, a retired school teacher and docent at the Museum at Eldridge Street. Jan will join five other colleagues and volunteers to participate in a working group to evaluate, assess, and adapt the museum's programs for people on the autism spectrum. Over the next few weeks, they will be visiting cultural institutions all over the city to observe educational programs for children on the autism spectrum. Their goal is to learn from the experience of institutions that have well-established programs and bring back new ideas and perspectives to the Museum at Eldridge Street. As the Director of Education, Julie Applebaum, explained, "We are committed to serving a broad audience and welcome this opportunity to explore and learn how to serve our visitors on the spectrum. I believe our participation in the project will help inform us about how to serve all of our visitors." With generous funding from The FAR Fund, the Museum at Eldridge Street is one of two museums (the other is being the New York Transit Museum which we wrote about in an earlier post) that is participating in a three year-long project to improve its accessibility for visitors who have autism.

The Museum at Eldridge Street (MAES) is housed in the 1887 Eldridge Street Synagogue, a National Historic Landmark on the Lower East Side. Until 2007, the major focus of the non-profit organization's work was on the restoration of the synagogue itself, which had fallen into a state of disrepair by the 1980s, and now retains its original historic character, beauty, and grandeur. Since then, the museum has emerged as an awe-inspiring architectural treasure and a cultural and educational lens through which thousands of people every year learn about Jewish immigrant life at the turn of the last century and the diverse cultural communities that have settled in America over time.

In the few years since the museum completed the restoration, the number of visitors has more than doubled, with the largest sector of growth being school and family programs. The museum estimates that about one quarter of the classes that visited last year from the New York City public schools were inclusion classes, many of which included students on the spectrum. There were also multiple visits from groups of adults with autism that regularly participate in the museum's educational programming. While the museum has done its best to provide a welcoming experience for all visitors, the docents and full-time staff are excited to utilize the network of museums through the Museum Access Consortium in order to expand their knowledge and institutional capacity to serve visitors on the autism spectrum.

Compared with art and science museums, there are fewer historic sites throughout the United States that have established programs for visitors who have autism (or at least that we know of!), making it a challenge for museums like this one to find models or seek guidance for adapting and evaluating the accessibility of their own programs. But this working group made up of the Director of Visitor Services, Director of Education, four docents, and one intern are excited by the challenge and hope to encourage other museums to also seek out creative ways to improve accessibility.

In the coming weeks, members from the museum's working group will be dropping in on programs at several different institutions, including the Queens Museum of Art, the MoMA, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Miracle Project at the 92nd Street Y. We will be sharing information with you on this blog about how these visits to other cultural institutions spark new ideas for the working group and their efforts to prepare to host a pilot program in the coming months for students from P94M who have Asperger Syndrome at the Museum at Eldridge Street. Stay tuned!