Getting By

Review

of an Exhibition

by Bill Watson

Published on May 31, 2007

  • Description:

    The Lower East Side Tenement Museum is located in the Lower East Side of New York City, traditionally – and still – home to recent immigrants to the United States. The museum is actually a restored tenement. Its 20 apartments, each approximately 350 square feet in size, were home to over 1,300 individuals from the tenement’s opening in 1864 through its closing about 70 years later.

    Four of the apartments have been restored, each with furnishings similar to those of a specific family that inhabited the apartments during different time periods. The museum itself might be considered an exhibition; however, because the museum is accessible only by guided tour, it seems reasonable to consider the apartments visited on a tour together as one exhibition. The tour I took was called “Getting By”.

    I had four main thoughts about the exhibition/tour as I took and reflected on the tour:

    1) The research that led to the restoration of the apartments was meticulously done, right down to the color of the walls and a tape-recorded message from a woman who lived in one of the apartments when she was a young girl.

    2) It was amazing to be in the physical space in which so many people and families once lived. I had read about tenements, but really knew nothing of how cramped the conditions really were. To be in a 350 square foot space with 15 other people on a tour and find out that a family of 8 shared the three small rooms was humbling. It made me think about the lives of the individuals and the struggles and conditions they faced.

    3) The tour (and therefore my reactions to it) were 100% consistent with the museum’s mission: “to promote tolerance and historical perspective through the presentation and interpretation of the variety of immigrant and migrant experiences on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, a gateway to America.” The object curation and educational message were focused on the larger themes of immigration in the past and present through the eyes of individuals who were and are immigrants.

    As I toured the museum in about an hour, I thought of all the stories those walls might have told. The “Getting By” tour focused on resources available to immigrants. The “Piecing it Together” tour focused on immigrants’ roles in the garment industry in the Lower East Side. The museum might have tried to address more themes (e.g., architecture of the building, the restoration process), but those were off mission. (The museum makes excellent use of its website, www.tenement.org, to tell some of those different stories.)

    Finally, I consider this experience – even though it was a guided tour – to be among the most interactive I have ever had at an exhibition. Being in the actual space, seeing meticulously researched artifacts, and hearing the stories of the people who lived in the space and used the artifacts made me think about immigration in a way that I never had before.

Latest Comments (6)

Interactive interpretation

by Wendy Pollock - May 31, 2007

Bill’s reflections remind me of a comment a science center exhibit designer made to me years ago after he’d come back from a visit to the National Park Service site at Harper’s Ferry: “The best interactive exhibit is a human being.”

Interactive interpretation–2

by Diana Issidorides - June 03, 2007

Bill’s and Wendy’s comments hit the nail on the head re what interactivity is really all about. Physical activity and interactivity are not synonyms. Yet this semantic error is often seen in many of our science centers. A beautiful display, a guided tour through a fascinating environment (as in Bill’s review), or even a single artefact can be infinitely more interactive than pushing, pulling, twisting, or turning levers, buttons and other bells and whistles. Interactivity is about holding power, not muscle power.

Interactive interpretation–2

by Diana Issidorides - June 03, 2007

Bill’s and Wendy’s comments hit the nail on the head re what interactivity is really all about. Physical activity and interactivity are not synonyms. Yet this semantic error is often seen in many of our science centers. A beautiful display, a guided tour through a fascinating environment (as in Bill’s review), or even a single artefact can be infinitely more interactive than pushing, pulling, twisting, or turning levers, buttons and other bells and whistles. Interactivity is about holding power, not muscle power.

I'm getting tickets....

by Maria Mortati - June 15, 2007

…for my dad for Father’s Day to see this. I’m in SF, he’s in NY, and this is our family’s story. Thanks, Bill.

While the often large spaces of a museum offer wonderful opportunities, there is nothing like close quarters to foster keen observation, and where possible, empathy.

visitor participation

by Elena Guarinello - August 09, 2007

In addition to the benefit of the human interpretation of the site (as noted by Bill and others), my experience on this same tour last Thanksgiving was marked by reflections from fellow visitors. On our tour were three generations of a family-grandparents, parents, and a teenager. One of the grandparents had lived on the Lower East Side around the same time as the tour’s history and the other in Brooklyn. Their personal reflections (on everything from baths in the kitchen, to using orange wrappers for toilet paper) added a special richness to the tour.

The Moores

by Paul Orselli - April 01, 2009

I just visited the LESTM for a MAAM event and enjoyed the tour about The Moores, an Irish family that lived in the tenement during the 1860s.

The impact of the stories and the space were incredible, and the impact of such historical phrases as “No Irish Need Apply” took on a special resonance both during and after the tour.

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