21 September 2014

Bread and Roses

"Conditions at the mills were brutal," we learn. "The mortality rate for children was 50% by age six; 36 out of every 100 men and women who worked in the mill died by the time they reached 25." Such it was in Lawrence, Massachusetts, in 1912, at the advent of the textile strike that became known as the Bread and Roses strike (the title being taken from a speech by activist Rose Schneiderman). The workers, immigrants from 51 different countries who were challenged to communicate, struck for three months in the dead of winter in response to shortened hours that reduced their pay from already low levels. The strike, which was led by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, or the Wobblies), led to Congressional hearings that revealed the plight of the workers, and helped improve the workers' situation, at least for a while.

All this and much more awaits you at Bread and Roses, an installation at LEA 13 by Ellie Brewster, who developed the sim for educational purposes. I was surprised to see the build in an arts sim, it having more of a humanities or social sciences orientation, but I've enjoyed reacquainting myself with the Wobblies and other aspects of the strike. Indeed, you'll meet some of the workers and families face to face as you visit, because Ellie has used archival images to populate the sim and to create trompe l'oeil effects, such as the laundry in the image above that moves from the archival image into the sim itself. Some of the buildings and homes are intentionally empty, as Ellie hopes her students will work on projects to fill them. Inside the main mill building, which dominates the scene, you'll find images that tell the story of the strike as you click on them (next image), and you're even given an opportunity to reenact the typical day of a mill worker.

"The point of the exhibit, I think, is that when we do history, it's important to understand that there is not 'one story' to be told," Ellie explained to me. "I'm trying to include as many alternate views as possible. There will be a lot more content added to the site as the grant period progresses, and I hope people will criticize it and suggest other voices to be included. I'd like it to be an organic site that reacts to the people who visit it." She remarked that she's not much of a builder, but in this instance I think it hardly matters. Be sure to have media set to auto-play while you visit, and be sure to check back over the forthcoming months as the exhibit continues to expand.

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