The Tenement Museum

Last spring I attended a college reunion in New York (I’m not saying which one!). It was amazing to discover that the connections from my college years were still there, as strong as ever.

One of many delights was discovering that a friend and I shared the same bucket-list item: we want to visit every museum in New York.

One place I’ve crossed off my list (but not really, because I’ll be going back) is the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side. I’m interested in the history of New York, and I was excited about learning what tenement living was really like. (My grandparents probably lived in a tenement when they first came to the US.)

Avid readers will already have guessed another reason why I was so eager to visit a tenement: I loved (and still do) Sydney Taylor’s All-Of-a-Kind-Family books for children.

So I spent an afternoon visiting two apartments at the museum, watching a film, and talking with other members of the tour group. It was one of the best museum visits I can remember, and I immediately signed up for the museum’s newsletter.

It was through the newsletter that I learned something surprising. The Tenement Museum is not – as I had assumed – a NY history museum. It’s an immigration museum – and there was a huge controversy when it was first proposed because New York was already talking about starting another immigration museum: Ellis Island. (Yes, I’ve been there too.)

After I read an account of the dispute between the Tenement Museum supporters and the Ellis Island supporters, I thought about my own visits to both places. And I remembered that Ellis Island had displays both about the immigration process there and the broader history of American immigration.

The Tenement Museum docent (who was wonderful!) encouraged us to share stories about family members and friends who had immigrated to the United States. More recent exhibits tell the stories of Holocaust survivors, Puerto Rican migrants, and Chinese immigrants who lived in the building over the years.

The postmoderns were right: a name is much more than a label. Names create expectations, set limits, open up possibilities, and define experiences.  If that building at 27 Orchard Street had been called “The Lower East Side Museum,” it would have a different focus and mission, and it would be evolving in a different way.

I, for one, am glad it was designated an immigration museum. I only wish that my grandparents were still here and could pay a visit with me.

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