October 2005 | Volume 56, Issue 5
Any and all museums of financial history. The museum at the visitors’ gallery in the New York Stock Exchange has been closed, along with the gallery, since 9/11, but even when it was open, it was a disappointment. The problem with the Stock Exchange museum, along with every other financial history exhibit I have ever seen, is that each one tries to serve as a sort of prospectus—sober, dry, and reassuring. This is understandable, but it leaves out all the good stuff. A first-rate financial museum would trust us dedicated capitalists with the great panics and swindles, the coups and raids, venality and greed —in short, all the things that make both history and finance so much fun. Grand paeans to the market or to various pillars of fiscal rectitude are fine, but without the whiff of a real killing, why are all those people working the floor in the first place?
A tie—between the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York City and the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. Both museums are unique adaptations of historic buildings, two of the most innovative and truly moving historical museums I have ever seen. The Lower East Side Tenement Museum consists primarily of an early cold-water New York tenement, at 97 Orchard Street, built in 1863 and the home to one wave after another of European immigrants before its owner closed it in 1935 (rather than adhere in that Depression year to a new city ordinance requiring that the hallways and stairwells be fireproofed). The museum has painstakingly researched the history of each apartment in the tenement and recreated five of them, with a sixth to follow soon, just as they were back in different eras stretching from the Civil War to the Great Depression. To take one of the museum’s guided tours is to pass through working-class urban life as it was lived for some 70 years by German, Irish, Jewish, and Italian immigrants. It is history conveyed through the implements these new Americans worked and ate and cleaned with, the beds they slept in, the crude wooden tubs that doubled as kitchen sinks, the dark hallways along which they groped their way at night, even the spoken words of a woman who lived in the building as a child. One is struck more deeply than ever, on a much more visceral level than either words or even photographs can convey, by the sacrifices so many of our ancestors made, how hard their lives really were—and what a short time ago it all was. The tiny proportions of the rooms they once crowded into can bring tears to the eyes.
The National Civil Rights Museum is located in what was once Memphis’s Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was murdered. The museum has gutted most of the building’s original two-story interior and replaced it with an ingenious display, a series of remarkable, largely hands-on exhibits chronicling the history of the modern civil rights movement. Visitors can sit in a perfect replica of the Montgomery city bus on which Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat and move back to the “colored” section—and even hear a recording of the words the white bus driver said to her. There are further replicas of the Woolworth’s lunch counter in North Carolina where the sit-in movement took off in 1960; the Freedom Riders’ Greyhound bus set aflame by white supremacists in 1961; the interior of a Southern jail cell; and many other tactile reminders of how difficult it was to achieve the rights that so many of us now take for granted.
Visitors end their tours in the actual room King stayed in, looking as it did on that evening of April 4, 1968, when he stepped out on the second-floor balcony and was struck down by a sniper’s bullet. It is another place capable of bringing one to tears, in part when you look at the wreath commemorating the spot where Dr. King fell, right out there before you on the balcony, but also when you look at the sheer homeliness of the room itself, a room King was sharing with another minister. It reminds you again of how many such rooms Dr. King had to stay in during his long years on the road, of how this was the best that a Nobel laureate, one of the greatest Americans who ever lived, could expect even in 1968, if his skin was the wrong color.