The Tenement Museum in New York City illustrates the stories of immigration through the personal histories of several immigrant families who lived in a tenement building in the Lower East Side. The stories of the these families and their reconstructed flats show how life was like for immigrants in NYC throughout the 18th to the 20th centuries. The museum also houses a visitor centre and a small cinema to watch plays a documentary about the museum. We joined a virtual tour and recall the onsite tour we participated in 2020.
The Tenement Museum
The Tenement Museum was founded in 1988 by Ruth J. Abram and Anita Jacobson in an abandoned tenement at 97 Orchard Street. The tenements-turned-museum housed an estimated 15,000 people, who immigrated from more than 20 nations between 1863 and 1935.
Our mission is to foster a society that embraces and values the role of immigration in the evolving American identity through guided tours; curriculum and programs for secondary and post-secondary educators; stories, primary sources and media shared on our website; and interactive online experiences such as Your Story, Our Story, podcasts and more.
The Museum’s first key property, the tenement at 97 Orchard Street, was designated a National Historic Landmark on April 19, 1994. The National Historic Site was authorized on November 12, 1998 (colinelovecat.blogspot.com). In 2017, the museum opened a second building in proximity to the main building. That allowed the museum to add stories of a Chinese immigrant and a Puerto Rican family and extend the time line into the 1980s. Currently the museum is working on integrating an apartment dedicated to Joseph Moore and his wife Rachel – the first apartment of a Black family. For some this step is long overdue as the non-representation of black histories in the museum has long been criticised (www.nytimes.com).
Tenements are apartment buildings for multiple households. In our context the term refers to buildings built from the late eighteen hundreds until the beginning of 20th century in NYC to house the rapidly growing population (it doubled every decade from 1800 to 1880).
The narrow, low-rise apartment buildings – many of them concentrated in the city’s Lower East Side neighbourhood – were often cramped, poorly lit and lacked indoor plumbing and proper ventilation. By 1900, some 2.3 million people (a full two-thirds of New York City’s population) were living in tenement housing.(history.com). The living conditions in the tenements finally improved at the beginning of the 20th century with the New Law or Tenement House Act of 1901.
- 1867: First Tenement House Act
- 1879: Tenement House Competition
- 1879: Dumbbell Tenement
- 1890: Jacob Riis publishes How the Other Half Lives
- 1901: Tenement House Act or New Law
The Tenement Museum resp. the different apartments can only be explored in guided tours. These tours resemble immersive trips back in time – they give visitors an opportunity to explore the change of public policies, urban development, architecture, and other themes through the true stories of the real families. Due to the restricted space in the apartments the guided tours are a very intimate experience so strict Covid 19 regulations are now in place. In addition to in-Person Building tours the museum offers walking tours, programs in the backyard and digital tours and events.
Digital Tour Epstein Family
FKV participated in the virtual tour to explore the histories of the Epstein Family: Kalman, Rivka and their daughters Bella and Blima. The President of the museum Anni Polland was our tour guide. She met Vela of the Epstein family in 2012 and their interview is the basis for the reconstruction of the family’s apartment in the museum. In the 1950s Kalman and Rivka Epstein lived as refugees in NYC after surviving the Holocaust. They have met in a displaced persons camp in Germany from where they immigrated to the US (Displaced persons Refugee act). In the tehenemnt at 97 Orchard Street they raised their daughters Bella and Blima.
The tour participants get to know Bella and her granddaughter in person in two videos. In one film Bella walks through the flat in the museum building that she has grown up in. Details like a record player and her favourite shampoo bring her past to life and make it easy to connect: she used Halo shampoo because she hoped it would make her more American as the ads promised. Also music played a big role for her becoming American: Paul Anchor was one of her favourite stars.
Participants could explore the flat alone in a 360 degree tour while the tour guide outlined cultural policies at the time the Epsteins immigrated.
Ten people joined the tour. Good to see that the museum keeps the virtual group small though there are no restrictions in the digital realm. The possibilities for individual participation are thus high and participation is fostered by the tour facilitators (a tour assistant and the tour guide) throughout the event. Participants are encouraged to ask questions, comment on photos and share their impressions. In sum all possibilities for interaction – the traditionally one-sided format guided tour allows – are utilised.
The museum offers a wide range of digital resources to dive deeper into the topic: virtual exhibits (Praise of Stuff: The Tenement Museum’s Collections) are accessible on the website and recordings of past events are available on the Youtube Channel. These are a great way to get to know the museum before participating in an educational event or to just browse following the own intersects.
A Virtual Tour of the Tenement Museum is a great way to get to know the museum and its mission. The interactive format gives room to questions and comments of the participants. Though the immersive experience of actually BEING in the reconstructed apartments and moving between the objects can not be substituted in the digital world. For everybody interested in more information on the topic the digital resources are great platforms to browse.
- Tenement Museum
- Apmann, Sarah Bean (11.04.2016): Tenement House Act of 1901, accessed 12.07.2021
- tlcarchive.org: Dumbbell tenements, accessed 12.07.2021
- history.com: Tenements, accessed 12.07.2021
- Hunter Danielle Marie Norton: Tenement Housing, accessed 13.07.2021
- Richman-Abdou, Kelly (21.06.2020): Jacob Riis: The Photographer Who Showed “How the Other Half Lives” in 1890s NYC, accessed 13.07.2021
- Schuessler, Jennifer (09.06.2021): Tenement Museum Makes Room for Black History, New York Times, accessed 10.07.2021
- Top 10 Secrets of the Tenement Museum, accessed 10.07.2021
- Berenice Abbott (1937): Old law tenements, from Forsythe and E. Houston Streets, Manhattan (New York Public Library’s Digital Library, digitalgallery.nypl.org d9d63410-c60c-012f-4047-58d385a7bc34:), via Wikimedia Commons
- Air Shaft of Dumbbell Tenement, National Archives at College Park, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons, via Wikimedia Commons
- Albert Berghaus (1865): Side Sectional View of Tenement House, 38 Cherry Street, N.Y. THE TENEMENT HOUSES OF NEW YORK – HOW THE POOR LIVE IN CROWDED CITIES – HOW PESTILENCE IS GENERATED – HOW THE PARENTS ARE DEMORALIZED AND THEIR CHILDREN DEPRAVED – THE GREAT SOURCE OF DESTITUTION AND CRIME. From sketches by Mr. Albert Berghaus, via Wikimedia Commons
- Yard of a tenement at Park Ave, Detroit Publishing Co., via Wikimedia Commons