Seneca Village and the Making of Central Park by the Bard Graduate Center
A Conversation Between Amanda Guzman and Nicole Garvin
Mapping Seneca Village’s architectural structures and resident populations
Hands-on the Past
AG: The question of how to productively engage with visitor audiences beyond traditional object-oriented exhibits is a current topic of debate surrounding museum institutions. What I find most interesting is how the Seneca Village tour approached this issue with performance art (with the help of choreographer Jennifer Newman and composer Justin Hicks).
We, as tour group participants, were drawn into physically imagining the past through a pair of dancers who embodied lost spaces (e.g. using string or counting steps to delimit the typical sizes of Seneca Village room interiors and land plots). As an archaeologist who works to craft narratives from the departure point of material culture, I was taken by Seneca Village tour’s use of these techniques alongside archival paper maps in animating history and space beyond the boundaries of traditional museum settings.
NG: How to engage with your audience(s) to connect them with your intended curatorial message is a question that not only museums face but is also a question for artists grappling with their work and the larger social contexts of art production for public consumption. Storytelling, itself, has gone through many iterations from the oral, visual, and written to now the augmented/virtual.
Through my previous work experience leading groups through museums, I found that a tour leader’s greatest hurdle is to create and maintain an engaging environment to keep their audience from being distracted. Building interpersonal relationships with your audience through storytelling and multimedia discussions is something that I feel crosses over from museum tours to tours in an outside environment. The goal is to foster a creative, interactive experience that not only builds on previous knowledge but promotes a willingness to learn something new. What I saw in the tour leader was the ability to draw people out of themselves and help them to find common ground with others.
Materializing the Invisible: Inclusion as Practice
AG: The tour did not only materialize structures and sites that are no longer readily visible on the modern-day Manhattan cityscape, but they also materialized marginalized communities of people and their experiences that were first rendered socially invisible in their original historical contexts.
I’m reminded of the beginning commentary during the Seneca Village tour about newspaper articles that derogatorily referred to the previous inhabitants of the area that is now Central Park and the repeated use of such language overtime to justify their removal (in terms of their homes and in later cases, even their skeletal remains).
NG: The engagement with the relation to a community was paramount during the tour. There was a community of students and scholars that came together to work to uncover Seneca Village based on a shared interest in past people and communities who have been unrecognized for their roles in shaping our current city.
By emphasizing community, the tour built upon a cognitive schema that guides the audience towards new perceptions of places that they likely thought they were very familiar to them as native New Yorkers. This schema incorporates new ways of knowing within the reservoir of their own personal experiences.
Assessing the Past
AG: One of my biggest takeaways from the tours was that we should critically evaluate the places that we live in and regularly move through in everyday life. Loss of physical spaces on a landscape doesn’t have to equate the loss of its histories and peoples.
The Seneca Village tour provided the foundation for participants to continue to individually think through spatial legacies. It transformed my seeing and experiencing these spaces. I find myself taking the scenic route through Central Park on my walk to/from dissertation field sites with a sense of reverence to the forgotten residential communities.
NG: Architecture, physical spaces and the environments that they occupy are designed for the activities of people who occupy the spaces. The tour highlighted for me, what happens when the differences between visions of spaces, their mutual influences on one another and the confrontation with capitalism and class, determine the fate of people differently.
AG: I agree - amidst challenges to their societal recognition/depiction and very survival, Seneca Village historically represents the vitality of an ad hoc, diversely occupied settlement in a space not yet formally incorporated by a burgeoning New York City.
The authors attended the Walking Tour Seneca Village and the Making of Central Park on June 3rd, 2017. Hosted by the Bard Graduate Center with Archaeologist Cynthia Copeland.