A New Colossus: The Tenement Museum

The best thing about working in a museum is, of course, working around world-class art and important pieces of history. But the second best thing about working in a museum is that you get into other museums for free. An acknowledgment of our shared love of learning and our measly non-profit paychecks, this reciprocal admissions process is a godsend in New York, where there are museums of every stripe at each corner.

One of my unofficial resolutions for this year is to visit museums more. I really don’t have an excuse not to: It’s free, it’s gets me outside of the apartment, it’s an activity of educational value, and there are more than enough museums in the city to occupy my time. I have, thus far, been pretty unsuccessful in my museum-going venture — a result of anxiety and museum fatigue (a thing that happens when museum-going is literally your job). But the other day, with two hours to kill on the Lower East Side (before an Escape the Room adventure, more on that in a different post), I ventured to a smaller, less-explored institution: The Tenement Museum.

(Via The Tenement Museum)
(Via The Tenement Museum)

A disclaimer: Pardon the history nerd in me, but I found the whole experience endlessly fascinating, so I’m going to nerd out a little about it here. The Tenement Museum is housed in an actual tenement at 97 Orchard Street. Its mission is to tell the stories of the over 7,000 immigrants who lived there over the years, and to explore the history of immigration itself. The ground floor gift shop and admissions area is small but inviting. I walked up to the counter, flashed my badge, and tentatively asked them if they did reciprocal admissions for other museums (most places do, but as a visitor services employee myself, I know it’s nice to be asked for a ticket rather than demanded one). The Tenement Museum is a little different from most traditional museums where you walk in, purchase your ticket, and wander through the exhibitions at will. Because of the nature of the space, here you buy tickets for different guided tours and are then led by an educator through the different floors depending on the tour you’ve chosen.

I arrived at 4:00 p.m. and was told that my museum badge covered the price of one tour, with two starting at 4:15 and three more at 4:30. I picked a tour called Irish Outsiders and met my tour guide at the entrance to the shop a few minutes later. Armed with complimentary hand fans (the tenement is authentically sans air conditioning), myself, a girl from Denmark, and a couple from Louisiana walked with our guide to the back of the building, where he began to lay out what life would have been like in the tenement in 1869.

(Via The Tenement Museum)
(Via The Tenement Museum)

If you’re at all familiar with tenements, you probably think of them as little apartments packed with 11-15 person immigrant families — very little light and overall poor conditions, straight out of Jacob Riis’ How the Other Half Lives. This is a pretty accurate picture of the tenements of the 1890’s, old buildings filled to bursting with Eastern European families. However, when 97 Orchard Street was built in 1863, it was part of a new type of housing, a step up for many who moved into them. The Irish family my tour followed moved to the neighborhood from Five Points, a diverse area farther downtown. The area we now call the Lower East Side was then called Kleindeutschland or Little Germany (in 1869 the neighborhood has the 3rd largest concentration of German speakers in the world) and our Irish family would have struggled to adapt to the area as they attempted to make a better life for their children. Because of their ethnicity, they dealt with discrimination and financial struggles, as well as the hardships of everyday life.

As we walked through the small dark rooms of the tenement, we learned about the Moore family and what their life would have been like in the middle of the 19th century: Joseph Moore was a bartender, a good situation for an Irish man in this period; most worked as day laborers. His wife stayed home to take care of the children. Despite their attempts to better themselves, the Moore’s youngest daughter got sick and they couldn’t afford a doctor, until they needed one to sign the death certificate. 1 in 4 children in these neighborhoods didn’t live past infancy. Despite this hardship, Joseph lived to 71 and his second daughter Jane, the only child that marries, moves out to Queens, continuing on their legacy.

(Via The Tenement Museum)
(Via The Tenement Museum)

Our group was small and engaged, and because we asked a lot of questions, our guide allowed the tour to go long and showed us some things that maybe weren’t on the schedule. He told us about the Katz family, who lived in the tenement just before it was vacated. Let us go down the interior staircase and out the front door, exiting the tenement like the Moore family, in through the back door and out through the front, on to bigger and better things.

I thought to myself that the space didn’t feel nearly as small as I had suspected (don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t anywhere close to what we’re accustomed to in 2015, but I’ve seen families with small children living in spaces not much bigger these days). I love a cultural experience that takes what I think I know and turns it completely around, expanding the picture and pushing me to re-examine the education I’ve already had.

(Via The Tenement Museum)
(Via The Tenement Museum)

This is precisely why I loved the Tenement Museum. I went in expecting one thing, and came out with a completely different viewpoint and a desire to go back and learn more, which in my opinion is what a museum experience should do. The Tenement Museum creates an interactive environment that invites you to learn actively instead of passively. Not only is it a great museum, but it’s also such an interesting, rich look at New York’s history. It’s a history that is steeped in immigration, formed by the comings and goings of diverse masses of people over the years. In one building, the museum shows us how the city and the population changed, and how it became what it is today. It shows us that New York is constantly changing with the ebb and flow of people that come here seeking refuge or a better life. Maybe the statue out in the harbor extends the invitation. But 97 Orchard Street, and places like it, is the place that takes in “your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

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