Last week, our class visited the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side for a tour. The building is a perfectly preserved building that was used from 1890s-1930s. The landlord sealed it up in the mid-1930s and it remained untouched until the mid-1980s.
Our class was focused on this unique way of telling a historical story through the experience of visiting real apartments and seeing memorabilia from that time period. The tour took us to the 3rd floor, which was formerly home to several immigrant Jewish families.
I thought the museum was very well done. Some in my class had visited before and compared our tour guide to their previous ones. But it was my first time and I thought the tour guide did well. Much of their job is to tell the story of the former tenants’ daily life. This included their work, family life and realities of the neighborhood.
I myself was most struck by a photo from the late 1890s that showed a midday scene along Orchard Street. Things were bustling, with people outside buying groceries, eating and lingering around. It reminded me quite strongly of street life from smaller cities in China that I saw during my 8 years living there. In those Chinese cities, the street markets are both the freshest and most convenient way to shop. While this type of lifestyle of daily grocery shopping may seem unusual to us, it nonetheless is probably a healthier way to get live than all our processed food.
I think the Tenement Museum was one of the most engaging museum experiences I have had in a long time. The focus on individual families and their true stories is quite compelling. The power comes in the details presented in the scenes, allowing you to easily imagine life during the period. It was a nice departure from the computer-based experiences we often study at ITP.