This week, Nina Simon at Museum 2.0 wrote about institutions with a public service perspective – museums that have transformed their mission and made their work about community-wide advocacy. For me, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in lower Manhattan is a model for civic engagement. This is the museum that inspired me, as a graduate student, to think outside the box of history museum offerings and consider the many ways a museum could contribute to social change.
The immediacy of those tenement apartments, interpreting the lives of Irish, German, Russian Jewish, and Italian immigrants in the 19th and early 20th centuries, generates a feeling of pride and a connection with the American experience, the story of immigration. That sounds a bit simple, I know, but there is a quiet power to witnessing the recreated worlds of people that share the same struggles as you do – paying the bills, feeding a family, acclimating to new surroundings, finding work. This was the first place I toured where the dominant story was about the working class and the poor, and thus felt relevant to a broad audience.
The Tenement Museum could stop right there and I would be impressed by the quality of their research and interpretation. But, it doesn’t. Instead, the museum is committed to using history as a means to get at contemporary debates, namely immigration, and inspire community action on a range of issues. There are some who would find the phrase “using history” worrisome, but the Tenement Museum is living proof that you don’t have to choose between rock-solid scholarship and policy. (There are institutions which strike that balance poorly, but that’s a different story for a different day.)
In April, I was lucky enough to participate in a roundtable discussion about civility and civic engagement in public history practice with Lokki Chan, an educator at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. In this current political climate, it can be hard to imagine people who disagree coming together to discuss the past and try to build upon some kind of shared experience. But that is exactly what the Tenement Museum’s dialogue program aims to do. Starting with a seemingly innocent question, “Where are you from?,” educators like Lokki work to deromanticize the past and complicate the present, making space for difficult dialogues about immigration today and in history. The program has been remarkably successful; in the past year alone, over 5,000 people have chosen tours with this discussion component and the responses have been overwhelming positive.
A perspective shift is an important goal. The museum also makes space for a different kind of engagement, through the “Agents for Change” initiative. In this section of the website, the museum highlights stories of community leaders, both historical and contemporary, who have brought about positive change in the community. The stories are meant to galvanize the reader into action; there are links and tips for pursuing similar goals in your own neighborhood. The initiative is bold and compelling.
For many of you, this love letter will feel familiar. But for those of you who haven’t yet been to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, or for those of you who are seeking out institutions where civic engagement has become part of the mission without cannibalizing their other goals, this post is for you. Now is as good a time as any – better even, as their new visitor’s center is slated to open soon – to visit and be inspired.
Lower East Side Tenement Museum
108 Orchard Street
New York, NY 10002