Storywalks — Giving Voice to the Past

Storywalks is just the coolest thing. It’s a new, free smartphone app that will debut at the Museum at Eldridge Street with a launch party on December 6th. Why is it so amazing? Because it brings history to life by restoring voices from the past to our exquisite sanctuary. It’s a beautiful marriage of old and new technology.

Max Smith

Here’s a sample – you can sit in the women’s balcony in the synagogue and listen to Max Smith talk about sitting up there with his mom when he was a kid:

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Storywalks began when Carlin M. Wragg and Anna Pinkas came to Eldridge Street as interns from the Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) at NYU. They had a mission: collaborate with the Museum to develop a new way to use interactive technology to enhance a visitor’s experience at the historic Eldridge Street Synagogue. “We have a passion for creating experiences that lie at the intersection of art and education,” they said. Carlin is a creative writer who uses archival media and the latest expressive technologies to tell stories about ordinary lives. Anna is a visual artist with a background in animation whose work with collections and series excavates the extraordinary slumbering within the mundane. They’ve both since graduated from ITP.

Carlin Wragg (left) and Anna Pinkas created Storywalks.

“A place like Eldridge Street invites you to wonder what it was like to be there when its benches were filled with congregants and the voices of famous cantors lead the congregation in prayer,” said Carlin, recalling how Storywalks got started.  “The Museum at Eldridge Street has worked for years to gather congregants’ memories of that time on cassette tapes and CDs. There is something special about these voices — their accents, the way their speech is infused with Yiddish phrases — that only comes through in the audio. From the beginning, the oral histories were core to the experience we set out to design; we wanted to create a way for these congregants to speak through time to tell visitors their stories.”

Carlin and Anna began developing this new app in January 2012 and had a prototype ready in May, which they presented to the Museum’s staff. As the Museum’s archivist, I was familiar with the oral histories they used for Storywalks—I’d seen the old cassette tapes in the archives and read the transcripts. But hearing what Carlin and Anna did with them was completely new and exciting! Suddenly the people – and the synagogue – came to life. These voices from the past told about what it was like to be part of the Eldridge Street community and its Lower East Side neighborhood in the 1920s, 30s and 40s. It was magical!

We all loved Storywalks, but there was the question of funding. “As a former arts administrator, I appreciate the limited resources museums have to experiment with innovations in interactive technology,” explained Carlin. “To create the experience of our dreams we need to hire a developer who has the expertise to build a boundary-pushing smartphone app.” The project needed money to move forward.

Ever resourceful, Carlin and Anna undertook a Kickstarter campaign and successfully crowdsourced the needed budget. “Storywalks shows what makes nonprofits special,” said Carlin, “A passion for mission, community support and a commitment to collaboration can drive innovation.”

Now ready to launch, Storywalks uses cutting-edge interactive technology to guide visitors along a sonic pathway of voices, music and environmental sounds, highlighting the synagogue’s architectural treasures, fascinating history and long musical tradition. It infuses the landmark Eldridge Street Synagogue with the voices of more than a dozen past congregants, making these voices from the past available to the public for the first time. Storywalks also features prayers sung by renowned cantor Edward Smith, son of Eldridge Street congregant Max Smith whose voice is featured in the clip above.

This smartphone screen shows one of the floorplans used in Storywalks.

The app uses a map of Eldridge Street and simple floor plans of the synagogue’s three levels to orient the visitor.  Voices are triggered by a touch on the screen. “We didn’t want Storywalks to feel impersonal and glossy, like so many smartphone apps,” said designer Anna. “The intimate and picturesque testimonies from this oral history archive lead us to a narrative that reflects the synagogue’s multi-layered history. We use the building’s floor plan to situate users, allowing them to immerse themselves in the splendor of the site rather than constantly calling attention to their hand-held screen.”

This public art piece is a collaboration between the Museum at Eldridge Street, Carlin M. Wragg (Producer and Narrative Designer) and Anna Pinkas (Visual and Interaction Designer), with custom software by creative technologists Chien-Yu Lin and Lia Martinez, a soundscape composed by musician Mercedes Blasco, and location recording and sound mixing by Ryan Billia.

“Storywalks is an unbelievable Chanukah gift,” said the Museum’s Deputy Director, Amy Stein-Milford. It’s a gift we feel very fortunate to receive – and one we can’t wait to share.

Come for a preview. The Storywalks Launch Party is on Thursday, December 6, from 6:30-8:30, at the Museum. The event is free.

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