The Tenement Museum

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This is no ordinary museum; it has a mission. Ruth Abram founded the institution with sociological goals in mind. “I wanted to create a national conversation among Americans,” she says. “Most of us are descendants of working-class immigrants, and we hold our forebears in high regard. But we might not relate to the newest wave of immigrants or realize how similar their experience is to our own families’. I thought that if I could bring Americans home to meet their own ancestors before they were ‘acceptable’ or economically comfortable, I could build that understanding.” The museum is part of the International Coalition of Historic Site Museums of Conscience, a classification that includes a slave house museum in Senegal, a workhouse museum in England, a gulag museum in Russia, and Terezin in the Czech Republic. Most of the world’s historical sites, Abram points out, tell the stories of kings and queens; even in the United States it’s surprising how infrequently we learn about the history of people more like most of us or many of our ancestors, particularly the people Abram likes to call “urban pioneers.” In the Tenement Museum you don’t just meet the first urban-working-class family presented in a museum; you also meet the first female-headed household, the first family on welfare, the first family that asked its child to leave elementary school to go to work.

The presentation has been immensely successful. In 1998 Congress passed a bill making the Lower East Side Tenement Museum into a National Historic Area, affiliated with the National Park Service, and it continues to expand as its curators research new apartments to fill the remaining floors and to teach its thousands of visitors. (Apartments currently in the planning stages include an Irish family’s home and a sweatshop.) The museum runs classes and educational programs for both children and adults, as well as theater presentations and even a “Tenement Kitchen” that can be rented out for dinner parties.

To give an idea of just what sort of raw material the museum’s researchers are confronting, all tours stop by the “Ruin Apartment,” a part of 97 Orchard that has been left just the way it was found, with chunks of plaster fallen from a stained ceiling and walls scribbled with garment inventories from the days it was used for storage. According to the museum’s curators, their own skills were trumped by those of the building’s last residents, rats who built their homes out of dolls’ heads and watches and business cards. But aside from just showing off the work of the now-evicted rats (and, of course, the curators), the Ruin Apartment serves as part of Abram’s educational enterprise, playing host to a children’s math project. After a school group arrives in the apartment, they are given a reproduction of a 1905 Sears, Roebuck catalogue and told to have a “family discussion” on how they plan to furnish their new apartment—on a twenty-five-dollar budget. “Some kids just want to buy beds, beds, beds,” the education director, Kate Fermoile, says. “Others just want to decorate. Eventually they have to compromise.” Their compromises aren’t that different from the ones the original inhabitants once made: using a row of chairs as an extra bed, letting children sleep on the floor, making one room double as living room and bedroom. But the children who come to visit the museum aren’t satisfied with just trying on immigrant lives. They want to meet the immigrants themselves, and the museum tries to grant that wish.

Like all the apartments at 97 Orchard Street, the Confines’ shows a family’s life frozen in a single moment: in this case, 1916. There is one difference, though. In this apartment a person is part of the exhibit. Victoria Confino is a fourteen-year-old Jewish girl, played by an adult actress, whose family moved from Turkey to the United States three years before the exhibit’s date. The family was Sephardic (Jews who were expelled from Spain in 1492), tagging the Confinos as outsiders not only among Americans but among Jewish immigrants as well, most of whom were Yiddish speakers from Eastern Europe. Yet when you meet Victoria Confino, you meet a canny and eager young American.

The Confino apartment tour is mainly geared toward children, because the museum’s staff noticed that school groups were always itching to get their hands on the furniture. In the Confino home, you can touch everything: the Victrola (playing a fox trot), boxes of “prophylactic tooth powder,” Victoria’s petticoats (she invites children to try them on), the books on the shelf ( Lives of the Presidents in Words of One Syllable ). Hidden speakers blast 1916 street noises —clopping horses, the cries of pushcart peddlers—and as if all this weren’t enough to sustain the illusion, visitors are required to get in on the act. According to Victoria, we all are new immigrants, asking her for advice.

Still carrying the mop and bucket she was holding when she answered the door, Victoria says, “So you want to know about the building, huh? What countries did you come from?” The children on the tour, as instructed, name the places that they or their ancestors came from: Poland, Korea, Italy, Jamaica, Ireland, Germany, Taiwan.

“I know you probably all worried, yes? It’s hard,” Victoria tells them in her newly minted English. “The first year I am here, I cry every day. But you get used to it. Don’t worry, you not gonna be lonely. Eighteen families live here, and they all got kids.”