In March I had the opportunity to visit New York City again, and, as is usually the case, booked a space in the (arguably best neighborhood in the city) Lower East Side. There are a lot of things that make the LES the best, including food, architecture, and the relatively quiet streets, but one of the best attributes the LES can boast is the LowerEast Side Tenement Museum.
The Tenement Museum was a staple of my graduate education discussion groups, in part for their innovative interpretation and programs. As I continued my education as a PhD student, the ground-breaking efforts to include people with disabilities in a (somewhat problematic) space became a focus of my research, and I’ve written about their efforts in previous blogs.
On this most recent trip, I met up with some fellow museum professionals in the city, and we booked tickets for the Shop Life tour. This is the newest tour at the museum, and also the only tour within the actual historic building that is accessible for people with mobility issues. The museum website describes the tour: “.. visitors explore the immigrant businesses once located at 97 Orchard Street, where communities worked, shopped, celebrated and struggled for more than a century. The exhibit features a re-created 1870’s German beer saloon once run by John and Caroline Schneider, as well as an interactive “sales counter” where visitors select audio and visual media clips to explore the stories of turn-of-the-century kosher butchers Israel and Goldie Lustgarten, 1930s auctioneer Max Marcus, and 1970s undergarment discounters Frances & Sidney Meda.”
The tour started in the German bar set-up from the 1870s. Our group was not a particularly lively group of tourists, but our tour guide made the most of it with interactive aspects of the tour as well as inquiry-based learning. From the story of the Schneiders’ business, we went through the building to see rooms that are in various states of preservation or excavation.
One of the coolest aspects of this tour, aside from the interpretation of a range of time periods and personal stories of the people who lived there, was the use of primary sources in the interpretation of the space. On my first tour of the museum in 2012 I noticed the commitment to the use of primary sources and photographs, and this tour was not an exception. Advertisements, photographs, menus, announcements, and other sources all provided that tangible connection to the past that museums and interpreters seek to impart.
Perhaps the best part of the tour, however, was at the end, when we were able to engage in active learning and visitor choice using some pretty cool (and not distracting or problematic or difficult) technology. Technology can be the bane of some museums and exhibits as it often needs updates, breaks, or is rife with user errors. We entered the interactive space, where each person was given space at a table with projected instructions. We each chose an artifact from the shelves behind us that we wanted to know more about. The artifacts told the stories of the people, businesses, neighborhood, and historical context who lived and worked in the space where we stood. We could explore as much or as little about these artifacts and their associated stories before moving on to another item/time period/story.
Lately the Tenement Museum has been in the news for their activism (and the subsequent backlash against that activism) regarding immigration. The stories of the Tenement Museum would not exist without immigrants. At the end of our tour, the guide played a short film about a current immigrant business owner who lives and works in the neighborhood of the museum. She encouraged us to visit his and other immigrant shops throughout the city. This activism and the commitment to the community surrounding the museum is what museums should be all about. Connecting the past to the present makes the experience more meaningful and impactful. I hope to explore these themes and topics more in the future.
I can’t wait to go back and try another tour! Have you been to the Tenement Museum? Which tours did you take, which would you recommend, and why?