I stumbled upon, as one serendipitously does on the Internet, a wonderful find of a cultural heritage museum with compelling, evocative, and wonderful interactive resources: the Tenement Museum.

The American Immigrant
Its mission to preserve, discover, and convey the storied history of the American immigrant from the late 19th and early 20th century (as well as 21st century programs) resonates with me personally.  My father, an Italian/Polish Jew, arrived in America after WWII from war-torn Italy on a boat like many millions of immigrants to Ellis Island in NYC.  He never forgot that ride and how he cried as a little boy at the site of the Statue of Liberty while entering the harbor and his entry onto Ellis Island.  Here’s a picture of Michele Roberto Heliczer (my father) grinning on the ship upon his arrival to the United States.

So many immigrants came into Ellis Island, poured into the bowels of New York City, with so many poignant and colorful stories.  So fitting was it to house the museum in a 1863 tenement apartment building in Manhattan’s Lower East Side (97 Orchard Street).

The Tenement Museum and its Digital Artists in Residence Program
Interestingly, the Tenement Museum supports an initiative that is called the Digital Artists in Residence Program(DARP), sponsoring online development about historical and contemporary immigration.  DARP has been instrumental in creating some highly successful online interactive resources such as “We are Multicolored” (Making Your Own Flag) and “Five Songs for the Five Points” (Mix a FolkSong.)   I believe the Tenement Museum’s digital mission and integration is shown in how compelling these seemingly simple interactive resources are.  I was impressed by them.  These interactives do not seem to be for a particular age group (thought it does seem for a youngish crowd, with Webcomics seemingly more fitting for the age group) as it is offered as a “Play” option for all visitors to the Tenement Museum.  I like that because often the kid games are supposed to be just for kids and we adults need that interactive fun too!

The three innovative interactive resources covered are:
1) We are Multicolored (Make a Flag)
2) Five Songs for Five Points (Make a Folksong)
3) Immigrant Game: From Ellis Island to Orchard Street with Victoria Confino

Interactive Resource #1: We are Multicolored (Make A Flag)
This is very akin to the wonder inherently seen in Prof. Twidale’s showings of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s World Beach Project and Design Your Own Arts & Crafts Tile.  Users create their own custom flags from a mashup of three selected countries, comment on it and the flag and commentary becomes a record and piece of art for the global “superflag” community of 40,000.  The screen below shows the Superflag – each little square represents a user’s custom flag.  The square I clicked on brought up this user’s particular flag.

“We are Multicolored” also provides an innovative offering called “Symbolism.”  If you click this page, you can identify, group and compare flags by shape, symbol, color, and meaning.

You’ll find interesting groupings of flags such as when I picked flags that stressed a color signifying “land fertility,” often these countries were poor or rural-based. The color “green” also can mean something quite different in one country than another.  Here Ireland’s green means the “Gaelic tradition” (and here I thought it was for leprechauns…)

Here is how one creates your own flag.  First, you are given three choices:
1) Where is your home? United States
2) What other country has affected you? Mexico
3) Where have you dreamed of going? Ireland

It is difficult to be limited to three –  if one has multiple homes, if more than one country has affected you (I’m a mix of Italian, Spanish, Polish, Russian, Scottish, German and Mexican – so that’s a stew), and if you’ve dreamed about traveling the globe.

Then with the 3 flags that come up, you can create your own flag – with options to break up the shapes (loved that one), rotating, and bringing to front and back. Once finished, you can comment on your flag and add it to the Superflag.  It now becomes part of the global project and a statement of individuality.  This is a lot of fun and addicting.

Interactive Resource #2: Five Songs for the Five Points (Mix a Folksong)
This is a wonderfully addicting soundmap (Flash technology) that allows you to mix and create your own urban folksong.  To create your own music from the sounds of the Lower East Side, you can explore and pick different sounds one hears in this area from the map by clicking and dragging the white circles to the colored sound spots on the map.

These colored sound spots represent different categories: field recordings (train, birds, hydrant, men working, manhole cover steam), spoken word, music, and folk songs.  You make your composition by mixing these five tracks, and can adjust the layering of the sounds through volume.  You can also save your mix.  Having grown up in New York City and exposed to the Lower East Side, I can completely relate to the complexity of sounds heard in the urban environment – trains, vendors selling, a musician on the corner, men working, birds and honking horns, voices, and more.  This is a beautiful, succinct capturing of this phenomenon and thus captures the spirit of NYC’s Lower East Side and the color of the immigrant experience.  This is something one can get immersed and lost in.

Interactive Resource #3: Immigration Game

This is a quite enjoyable interactive experience that allows you to become immersed in the identity of a 12-year old boy or girl from Europe and experience the travel and transition to America.  Called From Ellis Island to Orchard Street with Victoria Confino, the tour provides a friendly “immigrant” guide from 1916 (who’s been there and knows the ropes).  This is quite clever and inventive.  Victoria offers advice such as when going on the ship, bring food because the ship food is either horrible or very little and when arriving to Ellis Island, forewarns you of a shoe pick used to pull on the lower eyelids for examination and not to be scared of what they are doing.  If only immigrants could have had her help with these to-do’s and not-do’s before going on the voyage! Here is Victoria Confino:

In an old-fashioned movie theater, an old black and white movie plays, setting the scene of 1916 and identifies your journey as an immigrant.

The journey comprises:
1. Creating an immigrant passport
2. Picking your belongings
3. Going on the voyage
4. Passing inspection at Ellis Island
5. Making choices and experiences in new life in Lower East Side

1.  Immigrant Passport
In choosing my character, I decide to go for a boy, name him Guiseppe Fiorentino from Italy.  It would have been nice to perhaps had more choices from different countries but it was still fine.  I also would have liked to have seen the passport stamped with a sound effect.  Once you input these items, these are handwritten on the online passport including the “date of departure.”  One of the nice features of the system is that there is a visual progress map on the bottom to see where you are, what you are doing, and where you are going.  That visual progress map now contains the photo of Guiseppe, making it more personalized.  Following the red old-fashioned pointing hands is also very well done for navigation.

2. “What will you bring?” is a powerful and poignant exercise.
In this activity, you can only select three items to pack and take with you on your journey.  First, to think you are only allotted three items to take with you from your homeland to a strange country…

This was tough because food and bedding seemed to be critical.  I was hoping Guiseppe had someone with him so I counted on that and picked clothing, shoes, and a toy.  I know my father could bring one of the few items and it was an Italian Dumbo stuffed toy that he held onto for dear life.  It was his trusted companion, and one of the first experiences in entering America was the authorities taking his toy away – nasty!  Here’s Guiseppe’s belongings:

What would you bring?

3. Going on the Voyage
This shows a visual of the ship leaving Europe and arriving to New York City.  Here, Victoria offers that insider information and tells of her experience crossing over.  This is one spot I would have liked to have seen some historical images of immigrants on the ships and what the conditions were like (as shown as in activity – “Passing Inspection at Ellis Island’).

4.  Passing Inspection at Ellis Island
In this exercise, one gets the sense of what it must have been like getting to Ellis Island, the thrill, and then the fear, confusion and overwhelm of the health inspection.  Again, Victoria gives you helpful advice of exactly what to encounter in the entire process.  In addition, images of immigrants entering Ellis Island are intermingled in this space.  You are even asked some questions to see if you’ll pass the inspection.  One interesting idea would have been if you had failed the inspection, what would have happened?

5. Making Choices and Experiences in New Life in Lower East Side
You’ve made it into America and now what is your life going to be like, what are you going to do, where are you going to live, and what experiences will you have?  You enter into “Welcome to the Lower East Side” that has some visuals of your new neighborhood.  Here again, we are placed within a tenement apartment with Victoria describing it and what is is like.  The apartment works as a interactive visual map and you can select numerous choices – such as food experiences, jobs, etc.  This is the place of “enculturation.”

Conclusion:
The Immigrant Game is a very enjoyable, profound, cogent, and  visceral interactive experience that I think should be widely emulated.  It brings history to life, makes the museum a real space, brings the visitor inside the experience as if an immigrant walking in his/her shoes.  Though perhaps it could be modified in a few minor areas (might be nice to include at end real images or short stories of say your possible immigrant neighbors that live at 97 Orchard or perhaps as another possible interactive activity), it really is a superb, first-class offering that truly honors American immigrants and makes palatable and real to us their immigrant experience.  Kudos, Tenement Museum.

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