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Exhibition Traces a Century of Commemorations of Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911
Interior view of room gutted by fire which killed 146 in 1911 at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, New York City, 1911. Photograph by Brown Brothers. International Ladies Garment Workers Union Archives, Kheel Center, Cornell University.

NEW YORK CITY, N.Y.- Marking the centennial of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company Factory Fire—New York City’s largest workplace disaster before 9/11—New York University’s Grey Art Gallery presents an exhibition tracing 100 years of the fire’s memorializations. Art/Memory/Place: Commemorating the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire opened on January 11, 2011, and explores both historic and contemporary efforts to document the tragedy in which 146 garment workers—mostly young women from Jewish and Italian families living on the nearby Lower East Side—lost their lives. The fire broke out on March 25, 1911, in the Asch Building, now named the Brown Building and part of NYU’s Silver Center complex (which is also home to the Grey Art Gallery). It quickly spread throughout the 8th, 9th, and 10th floors, which were home to the Triangle Shirtwaist Company. With many of the stairways blocked, only some of the workers managed to escape; others climbed out the windows, leaping to their deaths, or perished on the factory floor.

Art/Memory/Place: Commemorating the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire is the result of an innovative collaboration between the Grey Art Gallery and NYU’s graduate programs in Museum Studies and Public History. Curated by NYU students, Art/Memory/Place is divided into four sections. Beginning with the ladies’ garment workers’ strike of 1909, Section One chronicles the fire itself, the display of bodies at the morgue, and the funeral processions—via photographs, magazine and newspaper illustrations, memorial sculptures, and even sheet music. Tracing the fire’s legacy from 1920 to 1945, Section Two ranges from a 1938 issue of Life Magazine profiling the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU), which references the fire, to documentation of Ernest Fiene’s striking but little-known 65-foot-long mural of 1938–40 in the auditorium of the High School of Fashion Industries (formerly Central High School of Needle Trades) on West 24th Street. Commissioned by the ILGWU, Fiene’s mural casts the fire as a touchstone of the union movement. Section Three explores activities surrounding the fire’s fiftieth anniversary in 1961, including memorial ceremonies, the publication of Leon Stein’s landmark book, The Triangle Fire (1962), and the Brown Building’s inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places. Demonstrating the renewed vitality of interest in the fire today, Section Four documents annual memorial activities, both on site and in various New York City cemeteries where the victims are buried; includes contemporary mural, performance, and installation art—as well as novels, poems, and children’s books—addressing the fire’s legacy; and displays the winning proposal in a competition to design a permanent memorial to victims of the fire being sponsored by the Remember the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire Coalition.

To curate the exhibition, NYU graduate students are working collaboratively with two instructors: Dr. Lucy Oakley, the Grey Art Gallery’s Head of Education and Programs, and Dr. Marci Reaven, an urban historian and director of Place Matters, a project of City Lore. In conducting research for the show, students are uncovering the myriad ways in which the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire has been remembered and, in some cases, forgotten over time. Immersing themselves in various perspectives on memorialization, commemoration, and visual culture, students are combing museums and archives in New York City and elsewhere to select artworks and archival materials, writing exhibit labels and publicity texts, and working with designers in order to realize the show.

The exhibition is accompanied by numerous public programs—including lectures, panel discussions, films, and performances—not only at NYU but throughout New York City and beyond. Especially momentous will be the memorial ceremonies on March 25, 2011, the fire’s centennial anniversary. In conjunction with this project, NYU students will also assist in the construction of a permanent memorial in NYU’s Brown Building, the former site of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.

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