Two weekends ago (during the snowpocalypse) I went to The Tenement Museum in New York City.
(Does the Tenement Museum sound familiar? That’s because I name dropped them in this old blog post.)
The museum is tucked away in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, historically an immigrant neighbourhood. While the museum is only 24 years old, the actual building was constructed in 1863 when the area was known a Little Germany, or Kleindeutschland. Over its lifetime, the building has been home to approximately 7000 residents.
Dedicated to sharing the stories of these residents, the museum offers a variety of tours. One such tour that I went on takes visitors inside the building, showing them the apartments where families lived. Guides share the stories of residents, pieced together from archival documents, genealogy research, and oral history interviews. Rather than providing all the answers, guides prompt visitors to use their imagination, and imagine themselves in the shoes of the residents.
The building itself is a character in each of the stories highlighted in the tours. Guides call attention to the visible layers of history that can be seen by visitors, including layers of wallpaper and flooring. Left vacant for almost 50 years, the residential portion of the building has been left almost untouched by museum staff.
At the end of each tour, visitors are asked to reflect on the evolution of the families that lived in the tenement. Residents struggled to survive, but ultimately got their slice of the American Dream for their children and grandchildren. Visitors are asked to think on the situation of present immigrants in the United States and to compare them to the stories they’ve heard.
This final exchange is where The Tenement Museum truly shines as an exceptional institution. Rather than simply leaving each visitor thinking “What a great story”, they encourage visitors to think long and hard about their interactions. From this reflection hopefully visitors will achieve a new degree of compassion and empathy in their lives; rather than seeing people whose customs and language are foreign , they’ll see the seeds of future generations, and thriving citizens.
A big lesson from a little museum.