Storywalks: A Smartphone App that Draws on the Archives to Bring a Historic Building to Life

The facade of the Eldridge Street Synagogue in Manhattan's Lower East Side
The Eldridge Street Synagogue, which has served as a place of worship continuously since it first opened in 1887, is also home to the Museum at Eldridge Street. The neighborhood, today the heart of Chinatown, has a long history of changing immigrant populations. [Photo by the author]

In December, the Museum at Eldridge Street, which is housed in the historic 1887 Eldridge Street Synagogue, launched Storywalks, a new smartphone app that uses oral history recordings from the museum’s archives to bring the site to life. The app is oriented around the synagogue’s floor plan, guiding visitors along what the museum calls “a sonic pathway of voices, music and environmental sounds.”

The Eldridge Street Synagogue, now a National Historic Landmark, opened in 1887, the first purpose-built synagogue established by Eastern European Jews in the United States. More than two million Eastern European Jewish immigrants settled in this country during the late 19th/early 20th century, and it’s estimated that some three-quarters passed through the Lower East Side and this synagogue. The museum tells an important story in the history of immigration in this country, a narrative that still resonates today — as many of the school children who pass through its doors, in the heart of Chinatown, have their own immigrant stories. 

The view from the balcony, where women and children worshipped apart from men. The giant blue stained glass window was created by artist Kiki Smith and architect Deborah Gans and installed in 2010. [Photo by the author]

The museum offers guided tours on the hour (though on the day I visited, a Monday, which turned out to be a day they offer free admission, they were holding tours every half hour). The Storywalks app forms a wonderful complement to the museum experience — bringing stories, voices, and music to this tranquil space via technology that is subtle and spare and doesn’t distract from the experience of the place. A guide may tell you that the women and children worshipped together in the balcony, separate from the men, but how much more interesting to listen, as you are climbing the stairs, to one woman remembering how endless the steps seemed to her as a child, and the fancy clothing the wealthiest women wore?

The Storywalks app is available for free download from iTunes, and if you don’t have a smartphone, you can borrow an iTouch from the museum. Here is an excerpt from “Beautiful Sanctuary,” one of the stops on the Storywalks smartphone app.

You can hear another sample here.

The Storywalks app was the concept of writer Carlin Wragg and visual artist Anna Pinkas, when they were graduate students at New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) at the Tisch School of the Arts. I sat down with the two of them to ask some questions: 

How did this project get started?

The twenty-year renovation project was undertaken with the purpose of returning the building to its former grandeur. Some outdated architectural elements were retained in order to facilitate the telling of the history of the space.
By the 1980s, with the congregation utilizing only the lower sanctuary, the building had fallen into disrepair; pigeons were roosting in the balcony and plaster falling from the walls. A twenty-year restoration process culminated in 2007 with many awards. The museum chose to leave some elements of the original building intact, such as these holes in the doorframe that carried the original gas lines for the lighting. [Photo by author]
CW: I was taking a class, “Cabinets of Wonder,” that looked at the history of museums. The class was structured around a series of design challenges that museums face today in interpreting their collections. Amy Stein-Milford, Deputy Director of the Museum at Eldridge Street came to ITP to present the synagogue as a case study, which led eventually to our proposing a project-driven internship to develop what became Storywalks.  

AP: The museum’s oral history archives were a unique resource. Using them enabled us to keep the project very focused on the history and life of the synagogue. We started coming to the museum once a week to read through the transcripts, with Carlin focused on identifying excerpts that could provide a narrative framework.

What did you need tech-wise for this? Were the oral histories at the museum already digitized?  

AP: Some of them were, but the majority were not. We both had some programming experience, but we didn’t feel we were going to take that part on for this project. We ended up turning to some fellow ITP alums, Chien-Yu Lin and Lia Martinez, who helped us determine how to make a flexible platform, one that would enable it to grow, if down the road we wanted to expand the app. They used Open Frameworks, an open source programming toolkit.

What about funding for the project? 

CW: The museum, while enthusiastic about the project, had made it clear that there was no funding available. So we started a Kickstarter campaign. It took a lot of work to raise the money, much more than we expected. But the museum was enthusiastic. As momentum built, they reached out to their networks to help us build support for the campaign. We set a high goal, and we exceeded the target. The funds also enabled us later in the process to hire a sound editor, Ryan Billia, and a musician, Mercedes Blasco, to compose a soundscape for the background of the app. We are very proud of our all-girl team (with the exception of Ryan, Anna’s husband)!

The homepage of the Storywalks app uses the imagery of Eldridge Street Synagogue's newly installed stained glass window.
The home page of the Storywalks app, showing the different floor plans of the synagogue, and Eldridge Street. [Photograph by author]
I really liked that Storywalks extends outside the building, drawing out reminiscences of life in the neighborhood decades ago. Did your decision to reach outside the museum come about because of the stories that you heard in the archives? 

CW: Yes. A lot of the oral history interviewees were children when the synagogue was part of their lives, and their memories were of playing in these streets.

AP:  Also, we didn’t have any music on tape. The museum suggested we record cantorial material and put us in touch with Edward Smith. He spent an evening with us in the sanctuary making the recording. His participation was particularly special, because his late father Max Smith was a congregant, and we used some of that oral history in the app. Edward had never heard his father’s oral history interview — where he speaks of how proud he is of his son — so it was nice to be able to give a copy of that to him.  

Clicking on the circles in the Storywalks app calls up voices, music, and environmental sounds and immerses users in a lush soundscape.
A view of the app’s main floor plan, the sanctuary. Each circle corresponds to a recording. [Photo by author]
Are there projects that served as inspiration for you?

AP: Janet Cardiff is certainly an inspiration. I also like those soundwalks that you can download, where you are led through different cities around the world by one expert individual. We did want an educational component for Storywalks, but we also wanted it to be artistic. 

Are there other projects that you are working together on?

CW: Yes, nothing specific yet, but we want to keep working together in the future! 

AP: And Storywalks will be featured in the New Museum’s Ideas City Festival in May.


1 Comment

  1. walter smalling

    A terrific small bit of history brought alive for students who might very well not even know of the Synagogue, much less think to go there. I thought it was particularly interesting that the group used Kickstarter to get the project going in the first place…..and the stories from the nieghborhood, which were critical in interepreting the story as far as I am concerned. Places of worship are by definition often very cut off from the urban spaces around them.

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