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Staten Island Volunteering ● Alice Austen House Museum

May 6, 2016

A few months ago I moved to Staten Island, and I’ve been gradually getting my bearings as I adjust to a new commute, a new borough, and a new old home. This past year has been an absolute whirlwind, with the vast majority of my time devoted to work, sleep, and house-related activities (unpacking from moving in with my fiancé, then immediately repacking all of our stuff, looking for a home, buying a home, doing a lot of necessary work on said home). I feel like I’m still a long way from feeling settled, but every day it gets a little better.

And maybe because I’m now not constantly stressed and – dare I say, even relaxing a bit? – I am feeling a little restless. I have been wanting to do *something* for the longest time, but I couldn’t quite figure out what that something was.

And then it dawned on me. There is exactly one place in all of New York City that combines my passions and interests, and it’s on Staten Island. And I’m going to start volunteering there!

It’s the Alice Austen House Museum. I feel as though, outside of Staten Island, Alice Austen is not that well known, which is a true shame.

(Fun fact: I did some wedding photos here back in 2011 for Katie and Jeff – check those out here.)

Alice Austen was a total badass

Guys, I don’t even know where to start here. I think the best thing about Alice Austen is that she was just living her life as she wanted to, but she was breaking down barriers in the process.

Austen as a Photographer

First off, the main reason why her house is now a museum: she was a prolific photographer. Born in 1866, Austen grew up when photography was just starting to become a mainstream medium. Her uncle introduced her to photography when she was just ten years old. She went on to produce over 8,000 photographs in her lifetime. She documented everything around her. She always had her camera with her. She went into the city, lugging heavy equipment with her, to capture arriving immigrants and city life.

It’s so easy to do this kind of stuff now, but back then her equipment weighed around 50 pounds. Would any of us willingly carry around fifty pounds of weight with us everywhere we went now? I really don’t think I could do it!

Her photos capture the Victorian era so well – the beaches on Staten Island when they were still summer resorts; NYC’s unenviable neighborhoods; upstate holidays; trips to Europe. These photos are treasures for historians.

I mean, think about it – just because there were cameras back 120 or so years ago, doesn’t mean everyone *had* a camera. Today everyone has some sort of camera, and it’s so easy to capture day-to-day life. Austen was taking photos during a time when people were still living their entire lives without ever being photographed.

Austen as a Feminist

Austen grew up with the wonderful idea that she could do whatever she wanted to with her life – so she did! In addition to being a female photographer traveling around Staten Island and the city documenting life candidly, she was quite athletic. She was a master on the tennis court. And, during a time when mostly men rode bicycles – she not only rode a bicycle, she took photos of women on bikes for her friend Violet Ward’s 1896 book, “Bicycling for Young Ladies.”

Austen was clearly a fan of independent transportation, and naturally was also the first woman on Staten Island to own a car.

Austen as a Lesbian

Alice met Gertrude Tate in 1899, and the two started a relationship. Completely devoted to each other, they remained together for over 50 years. They both experienced resistance from their families over their relationship, but they persevered during a time women were expected to marry young and have children (when they met, Tate was 28 and Austen was 33!).

Think about how tough it still can be for same sex couples – even now, in 2016 – and bring it back to 1899. Truthfully, I’m not one to celebrate one’s orientation just for the sake of applauding something seen as “different,” as I feel it’s not a big deal – what you are is what you are and that’s awesome. But for these two women to find each other and begin and sustain a relationship despite everyone and everything around them is nothing short of incredible. It must’ve taken a great deal of courage and strength to continue on in the face of total adversity.

I can’t even fathom what life must have been like for Alice Austen. It was, in many ways, a much simpler time (though the other side of this coin really means it was a much more complicated time for someone like Alice). But she kept doing her thing, overcoming insurmountable hardships – in addition to being a feminist lesbian photographer during a time all these things were frowned upon, she also faced horrible financial woes during the Depression – and living her life.

The Alice Austen House

This is where she grew up and lived most of her life, but the great thing about this house is that, even without its most famous resident, it’s an amazing historical structure. Parts of the house date back to the late 1600s! This house was an old house before the Revolutionary War started. I can’t even wrap my head around it.

I’m a big ol’ nerd, and love this old house. My love of old houses and American history goes back to when I was a child. I went to the re-enactment of the battle of Lexington and Concord when I was, like, 9 years old. I was probably the only young child there! (It starts at like 6am!). When I was in high school, I was an intern at Old Sturbridge Village. I also volunteered at Preservation Worcester. This stuff is my ABSOLUTE JAM.

In addition to all of this, part of the house is also used as an exhibition space for contemporary artists. Part museum, part exhibition space – how cool is that??

I’m really, REALLY excited to start volunteering. Honestly, with my crazy schedule, I can’t devote tons and tons of time to this, but I’ll be happy to help out any way I can. I’m starting this Saturday!

So! If you’re in the area, stop on by! This is a great place to visit if your interests include history, photography, feminism, LGBT history and support, and/or the Victorian era. Plus, there are beautiful views – the museum is right on the water.

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