By Mandi Magnuson-Hung
Since opening in 1992 in what was previously a tenement building at 97 Orchard Street on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum has interpreted the lives of the working-class immigrants who occupied the building during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Now, with it its first new permanent exhibit since 2008, Shop Life, the Tenement Museum is building on its past to move in new directions, opening up new stories and using new media to tell them.
With the acquisition of 103 Orchard Street in 2007, the museum moved some functions to the new building, which then freed up exhibition space in its original site. Shop Life, which opened in December, tells the story of the diverse businesses that occupied the street-level space at 97 Orchard Street, beginning with John and Caroline Schneider’s German beer saloon in 1863 and ending with an undergarment shop in the 1980s. It is, as one quick-witted guide notes, “Beers to brassieres in 150 years!” A technologically sophisticated interactive device draws visitors further into the worlds presented in the exhibit.
As with every visit to the Tenement Museum, a skilled educator guides visitors through Shop Life, creating an engaging, thought-provoking experience. As visitors enter the Schneiders’ saloon, a guide encourages them to explore the space, asking: “Look around, do you see anything unusual?” Every observation then becomes an opportunity for the guide to reveal a glimpse into the lives of the Schneiders as well as their customers. John served in the Civil War as a musician, hence the assemblage of brass instruments hanging on the wall to the left of the bar. A cigar stand on a shelf is explained by the fact that the Schneiders, as proprietors of a hub of neighborhood sociability, necessarily played a number of roles, including that of tobacconist. A mallet behind the bar becomes a vehicle for entering more fully into John and Caroline’s lives. Grasping the handle of the “bungstarter” and approaching the small wooden keg resting on the barrel stand at the foot of the bar, the guide demonstrates the finer points of tapping a keg and allows visitors to hold the tool.
Tucked into the back corners of the bar is a buffet laden with delectable looking dishes that represent the Schneiders’ Bavarian and Prussian heritage. The sausages, pretzels, and glistening pig trotters crafted by historic faux food master Sandy Levins look real enough to eat. A second table serves as a focal point for discussion about the bar’s customer base and tensions between New York’s blue laws, which prohibited the sale of liquor on Sunday, and German immigrant culture.
The narrow room between the bar and the Schneiders’ tiny apartment served as a liminal space, dividing the public from the private realms. It functioned both as John’s office and a semi-private venue for meetings of fraternal organizations and secret societies where men wrestled with the political issues of their time. The guide prompts visitors to imagine Caroline passing through this space on her many trips between the cramped kitchen and the buffet, overhearing but not participating in the discussions. In the bedroom, the guide presents a copy of John Schneider’s death certificate, one of many primary documents placed within the exhibit space to corroborate the narrative and facilitate group interaction.
A dilapidated room across the hall contrasts with the Schneiders’ meticulously recreated saloon and apartment. At one time they may have occupied the entire lower level, but at some point the space was divided to accommodate more tenants. By not restoring this room to one of many commercial operations located at the site, the Tenement Museum allows the visitor to see the march of humans and time through the building. The walls have been stripped to reveal over one hundred years’ worth of paint and wallpaper as well as the plaster and lath underneath. A rather worn piece of plywood rests almost haphazardly in front of a gritty fireplace. After a brief look around, visitors are gathered around the single display case in the middle of the room. It contains material evidence of economic transactions carried out in the building, including fragments of paper rescued from the fireplace and a beer stein uncovered during an archaeological survey of the tenement’s backyard privies. As narrative tools, the items in the case act as reminders that 97 Orchard was not and is not frozen in time but experienced significant changes in use, with attendant changes in demographics, employment, and even aesthetic taste.
The museum has restored a third space to its 1930s appearance as Max Marcus’s auction house. To the left of the door a line of stools and folding chairs run the length of the room, punctuated every few feet by tall shelving units containing items such as a wallet, a small cardboard box, and even a brick. However, a nearly twenty-five-foot long counter on the right, divided vertically into equal sections from which hang replica telephone receivers, dominates the room. Visitors are are seated while the guide steps behind the counter, stationing herself between two large display screens on the wall.
Moving a stylus across the screens conjures images related to three businesses, including Israel and Goldie Lustgarten’s 1890s kosher butcher store and Sidney and Frances Meda’s 1970s undergarment store, as well as Max Marcus’s 1930s auction house. Visitors are invited to select an item from the shelves and place it on the counter. As they do so, the table comes alive with images and sound pours from each receiver. For example, placing a silver vase summons pictures of the Marcus auction house, and the user is free to explore snippets of interviews with Marcus’s business associates, his marriage certificate, and an introduction to New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia’s war on pushcarts. Other visitors may learn about violent boycotts of Jewish butcher shops or the creation of shopping guides detailing the Lower East Side undergarment shops.
The Tenement Museum’s staff decided to include a technologically sophisticated interactive in Shop Life in order to tell as many stories as possible, while allowing users to direct their own experience. Conceived by the design and technology firm Potion, the motion-sensitive table “reads” RFID (radio-frequency identification) tags on the artifacts, accessing primary documents, images, and audio files associated with each object The table is used with the understanding that it will enhance, not replace, the dialogic experience established by museum educators.
Certainly the magic of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum emanates in large part from the solid research invested in every tour and exhibit, but it comes alive in the staff’s dedication to interaction, between visitors and the neighborhood as well as with each other, but also between visitors and the past. Laminated photocopies of photographs, census records, and other primary documents peak out of baskets and underneath display cases, but guides never force a reveal. Visitors guide the specifics of the story through their questions and observations, promoting sustained engagement.
As the museum moves forward, the staff is considering ways to build upon the stories told at 97 Orchard, which closed to residents in 1935. David Eng, vice president of marketing and communication, said that future projects will necessarily extend the narrative into the post-World War II era but that the staff is still working out how best to present that period. Complicating the story are questions of focus and how the museum will adequately address the diverse experiences of Jewish, Chinese, and Latino immigrants in a compelling manner. It is unclear if visitors will see another interpreted apartment, which has been a mainstay of the museum’s programming for many years, or additional walking tours and expanded public programming. Regardless, staff members are currently collecting oral histories from the Chinese and Latino men and women who influenced the neighborhood after 1945 and scouring the documentary record for relevant materials.
Museum President Morris Vogel observed that interpretations of the post-World War II era “will tell the story of how the U.S. ultimately rejected race-based national origins quotas by presenting narratives about families who lived in a tenement building we recently acquired [103 Orchard]. We will tell the stories of Jewish Holocaust survivors, Puerto Rican migrants, and Chinese families in immersive environments much like those which we interpret in our landmark tenement building. We will, in effect, be telling the story of why New York–and much of the country–looks the way it does today.”
Communications manager Kira Garcia noted that in addition to contributing to a future exhibit, work currently underway will enable the museum to continue to be “a venue for larger conversations about community with people from the community.” On the one hand, the museum is conscious of its place in Manhattan’s Lower East Side and offers programming and classes that serve a neighborhood that continues to draw immigrants. For example, it offers English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL} courses that use the history of immigrant experiences to connect with students. On the other hand, the museum reaches out to the greater New York City region through programs like its Tenement Talks and Culinary Conversations with food historian and writer Jane Zieglman. The museum also attracts a visitors from around the country, and indeed the world, who see it as either telling a uniquely American story or, if their ancestors immigrated to the U.S., a way to make personal connections with that story.
Exhibits and programs at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum such as Sweatshop Workers and Hard Times explore themes of immigration, economic life and commercial space, and community. Prior to the opening of Shop Life, however, stories at 97 Orchard always terminated in 1935. The new exhibit allows the museum to paint with a broader narrative brush that moves the visitor quickly and effectively past 1935. It serves both as a testament to immigrant merchants in the building and to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum’s commitment to enhancing appreciation for the profound role immigration has played and continues to play in shaping America’s evolving national identity.
|For further information on the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, go to http://www.tenement.org/|
Edward Rothstein, Toasting History in a Cellar Saloon: Lower East Side Tenement Museum Opens “Shop Life,” New York Times, February 8, 2013.
Mandi Magnuson-Hung is a recent graduate of the public history master’s degree program at Rutgers-Camden. She currently serves as the Digital Media Coordinator at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Center for the Humanities.