One hundred years ago, on March 25, 1911, 146 people, mostly young women from Jewish and Italian immigrant families, perished in a tragic and avoidable fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, which was located on the top three floors of the Asch Building (now NYU’s Brown Building), on the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street. The fire broke out on the 8th floor and quickly spread to the 9th and 10th floors. 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. Although it was extinguished in less than half an hour, the Triangle Fire was New York City’s largest workplace disaster before 9/11.
The exhibition results from an innovative collaboration between the Grey Art Gallery and graduate students in NYU’s Programs in Museum Studies and Public History. Divided into four sections, it begins with the ladies’ garment workers’ strike of 1909, then chronicles the fire itself, the display of bodies at the morgue, press coverage, and funeral processions and other memorials, including legislative action. Section two records the fire’s legacy during the New Deal era, noting the rise of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) and examining its representations in journalism and mural painting. The third section explores activities surrounding the fire’s fiftieth anniversary in 1961, including commemorative ceremonies, scholarly publications, interviews with survivors, and landmarking.Demonstrating renewed interest in the fire’s legacy today, the final section investigates contemporary memorial activities, both on site and in the form of visual representations in community projects and performance art—along with works of scholarship, film, music, and literature, including children’s books.
Art ● Memory ● Place concludes with a call for continuing vigilance and political action to protect the rights of garment workers, both in the U.S. and worldwide. The exhibition is dedicated to the fire’s victims and survivors, and their descendants. Documenting a century of commemorations, it traces the many social and political advances inspired by the tragedy, and the myriad ways in which its memory has been claimed, contested and re-invigorated.