After 1935: What’s Next for the Lower East Side Tenement Museum

By Special Contributor posted 11-12-2013 11:57

  

By: Kira Garcia

Delancey Street facade of 103 Orchard, looking southeast, showing two stores with different infill at left, and ornamental entrance surround at apartment and easement entries at right. Brickwork and terra cotta on upper floors are painted a uniform light color. ca. 1940 | Credit: NYC Municipal Archives via Lower East Side Tenement Museum
Delancey Street facade of 103 Orchard, as it appeared in a circa 1940 photograph. It shows two stores with different infill at left, and ornamental entrance surround at apartment and easement entries at right. Brickwork and terra cotta on upper floors are painted a uniform light color. | Credit: NYC Municipal Archives via Lower East Side Tenement Museum

For 25 years, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum has welcomed visitors to explore its tenement building and the vibrant New York City neighborhood it calls home. From 1863 to 1935, the immigrant residents of 97 Orchard Street worked, raised families, kept house, and built communities. The recreated homes of these families introduce visitors to stories of the distant past—many of which are surprisingly relatable! The museum has transformed this everyday tenement into a National Historic Site, its worn hallways and tired interiors a monument to how an imaginative approach to historic preservation can summon the ghosts of the past to explain America’s most cherished ideals.

97 Orchard Street was frozen in time when its final tenants moved out in 1935, but the neighborhood, the city, and the nation continued to evolve around it at an astonishing pace. The museum, too, has evolved, growing from what was once literally a kitchen table operation, to an international cultural destination with 200,000 visitors annually.  When the museum opened, the tenement’s 1935 closure placed its narrative squarely within the period of significance of the Lower East Side National Register Historic District, which ended in 1940 as the European immigration that had given the area its special character also came to an end. But the renewal of immigration in our own time—and the change in its origins—has transformed the neighborhood and provided the museum a compelling contemporary story to interpret.



The museum is addressing the “recent” present as it gathers stories for a new exhibit in a new location—an 1888 tenement at 103 Orchard Street, where its visitor center is currently located. Recreating 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s apartments on the upper floors of this structure, the museum will tell the stories of Holocaust survivors, Puerto Rican migrants, and Chinese immigrants who settled on the Lower East Side in the second half of the 20th century. In presenting these three distinct cultural narratives side by side for the first time, the museum will provide a powerful lens on how Americans moved beyond the race-based immigration quota laws of the 1920s.

103 Orchard Street with the Sadie Samuelson Levy Immigrant Heritage Center | Credit: Lower East Side Tenement Museum
103 Orchard Street with the Sadie Samuelson Levy Immigrant Heritage Center | Credit: Lower East Side Tenement Museum

In its first phase, the exhibit will consist of an engaging, interactive, and multi-layered website. Visitors will “meet” three families who once resided at 103 Orchard through video clips, and by clicking on objects in the rooms that lead to stories about the residents. Visitors will be able to respond--virtually--to linoleum floors, tea kettles, sewing kits, schoolbooks, rosaries, and Sabbath candlesticks: these objects may remind them of their own or their grandparents’ daily lives. As in the museum’s tours of 97 Orchard Street, this online exhibit will welcome input from visitors, and for the first time the museum will solicit user-generated content, allowing visitors to upload photos and stories of their own families.

The web-based exhibit will use everyday experiences to highlight similarities and differences between families: finding jobs, creating homes, raising children, coming to terms with new neighbors. Taken collectively, these narratives highlight the shifting landscape of immigration and an increasingly cosmopolitan America.

The exhibit’s second phase will be the bricks-and-mortar exhibit of mid- and late 20th-century homes restored at 103 Orchard Street. The exhibit at 103 Orchard Street will integrate digital technology and the museum’s time-tested immersive spaces and educator-led tours, interpreting the lives of several families. The museum is already collecting the oral histories and conducting the critical research that will ultimately shape its narrative even though the launch of this exhibit is still several years away.

In some ways, this new exhibit will mark a radical change for the Tenement Museum. It will explore new cultures, feature more recent—and recognizable—daily routines, and reflect the profound shifts that have taken place since the tenement’s earliest days. The demographic, economic, and technological forces that shaped and re-shaped 20th-century New York would have been unimaginable to the 19th-century residents of 97 Orchard Street. But despite these profound changes, the new exhibit at 103 Orchard will also be very familiar to the museum’s fans. It will extend and expand the museum’s existing work, highlighting how more recent migrations have transformed the Lower East Side, enriching our city and our nation with new ideas and new energy.

Kira Garcia is the director of communications for the Lower East Side Tenement Museum.



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