Tenement Museum: Telling the many stories of a 5-story building

the Tenement Museum, courtesy of ahistoryofnewyork.com

97 Orchard Street may not have been a model tenement, but its current incarnation as the Tenement Museum serves as a model of responding to challenges in interpretation. First, it has devised a clever solution to the question of encouraging repeat visitors to a historic site, and simultaneously broadening the diversity of that audience. The museum offers eight different guided tours that appeal to a variety of interests, including five tours that explore the building’s physical stories through the lens of historic residents’ life stories, and three walking tours of the neighborhood that set the tenement itself into wider contexts. Using the floors of 97 Orchard as microcosms of the building’s history, and by extension the history of the tenement form in New York City, the five building tours, one hour each, rely largely on visitors’ imagination and sense of empathy to animate the rooms. In one case that is specifically advertised for families, the “Confino Family Living History Program,” a costumed interpreter assists with this animation, demonstrating the museum’s plan of appealing to different audiences through strategic interpretative methods.

As an indecisive person, I was a bit overwhelmed upon first visiting the museum’s website. Which of the tour options would provide me with the best sense of the tenement’s history? After poking around reviews and travel forums to gauge the tours’ popularity, I chose “Getting By.” This tour, which took place on the second floor of the building, visited the restored apartments of the German-Jewish Gumpertz family in the 1870s and the Italian-Catholic Baldizzi family in the 1930s. While I was initially disappointed that my experience of the building would be limited to one level, and a bit skeptical that an hour-long tour could sustain interest while restricted to two small apartments, I was ultimately impressed with the scope of the experience and saw the benefits of offering multiple tours.

The reason that one floor was sufficient material for an hour was that the interpreter used each apartment as the setting for telling the story of a family who actually lived there, and then generating a discussion of the family’s conditions in relation to a modern context. She interwove the historical accounts with questions designed to help the audience observe certain characteristics of the apartments and to connect with the families, not only by occupying the space they once inhabited but also by considering the emotions and thought processes that might have accompanied certain events in the history. These questions ranged from “What does the word ‘tenement’ make you think of?” to “What would you do if you were Natalie Gumpertz and your husband disappeared?,” from “How does the 1930s apartment look different from the 1870s apartment?” to “How did your own ancestors get by in the Depression?”

Throughout the tour, the interpreter was clear about what facts the museum did and did not know, even passing around the documents that were the basis for the museum’s research. She encouraged visitors to fill in the gaps between these facts with their own conjectures and experiences, as opposed to fabricating a narrative undifferentiated from fact. It was unclear whether the furnishings and objects in the apartments were original artifacts (although the guide later clarified that many were), and these objects were often not identified or interpreted. The goal of the tour was not to experience individual elements of the apartments, which again were quite small, but to experience each space as a whole. The few objects with which visitors interacted—turning the light switch to experience the hallway in historically-accurate darkness, passing around a sad iron to feel its weight—were used to produce the effect of simulation and help visitors to better relate, even at a corporeal level, to the families whose stories they were hearing.

the Baldizzi kitchen, courtesy of the Tenement Museum

This sense of connection reached a climax when the interpreter paused before leaving the Baldizzi apartment to play for us a bit of oral history from the Baldizzi daughter Josephine, now an older woman. As we stood in the kitchen, Josephine described concrete memories of how her family used that space, while the interpreter subtly directed our attention to the objects to which Josephine was referring—Linit Starch, a gas heater, a set of Chinese checkers. Through these multiple means of interaction, interweaving documented facts, visitor-driven speculation, object-based simulation, oral history, and personal reflection, the Tenement Museum has addressed the challenges of engaging visitors, appealing to universal themes and to both emotions and intellects, and guiding visitors to discover their own sense of the significance of this historic place. In the end, the visitors from Texas, California, Australia, and the native New Yorkers on the tour with me could all relate to the families who had lived in the tenement. The comments that I heard afterward multiple times were “great research” and “great story;” I think that both were key to the Tenement Museum’s interpretation plan.

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