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  • Ivory Towers and Tenements:American Jewish History, Scholars and the Public
  • Annie Polland (bio)

Just as public historians want their interpretations to rest on solid scholarly work, scholarly historians certainly hope that their interpretations reach the public. At the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, these common goals dovetail in the creation and revision of exhibits. In many ways, the strength of our exhibits depends upon a productive relationship between scholars, museum educators and our site-specific stories. This relationship unfolds through a focus on a National Endowment for the Humanities-funded revision of a core exhibit, Sweatshop Workers.

The Tenement Museum offers five building tours and four walking tours fifty times a day, 362 days a year. In 2013, close to 200,000 visitors—40,000 of them schoolchildren—explored the daily lives of past residents of the tenement building at 97 Orchard Street—German saloonkeepers and dressmakers, Irish waiters, Sephardic owners of apron factories, Italian carpenters, Polish tailors. The museum estimates that between 1863, when the tenement opened, and 1935, when it closed to residents, upward of 7,000 people made their homes in the building.

The cornerstone of our museum collection, then, is the tenement itself, the only building of its kind that benefits from research and study. Preservationists scrupulously analyze building materials for paint colors, wallpaper patterns and partition placement, while furnishings curators artfully reimagine and source objects, guided by research and, when accessible, family recollections, to recreate period apartments. On a daily basis, these apartments immerse visitors in the past, inspire their curiosity and become the stage upon which they can imagine history. Individual architectural elements—a banister, a fireplace, or an interior window—prompt questions. The museum educator’s ability to relate architectural elements to people makes history come to life; for example, a circa 1890s interior window gains significance when we can imagine the housewife grateful for the filtered sunlight that shines in a once-light-deprived kitchen. As for the banister, visitors appreciate its sturdiness when they imagine a teenage errand boy, overburdened with sheets of fabric, trying to make his way up five flights of stairs in a darkened hallway.

The tenement serves as our main collection piece, and we revel in its concreteness, but just as important are the stories of its residents. [End Page 41] Unlike traditional museums with vast collections and permanent wall text, we use storytelling and circulate primary sources—census accounts, photos, newspaper articles—to tell the stories of the residents. All tours are educator-led, and start with the residents and their biographies, but their stories necessarily call for contextualization. Historians and their work prove essential to the framing of the residents’ stories. The benefit of favoring storytelling to wall text is that we have more flexibility and we can revise our content. Just as historians make new discoveries and craft new interpretations, the museum updates its tours to reflect these changes.

In 2010, the museum made the case to the National Endowment for the Humanities that in the years since the opening of several of the exhibits, historiography had taken new turns, and we wanted to update our content accordingly. The subsequent grant brought together eight scholars—Robert Orsi, Tony Michels, Lizabeth Cohen, Marjorie Feld, Jennifer Fronc, Andrew Dolkart and Jared Day—to help us revise several of our building tours, including Sweatshop Workers. Scholars experienced the tours, read the tour content, and wrote essays that used particular objects as points of departure, and tested their interpretations by introducing them to the museum educators. In this way, the scholars not only relayed their historical insights, but also actively applied their historical insights to our settings, visitors and educators.

In addition to making the case that we wanted to update our tours to reflect developments in historiography, we also acknowledged the need to listen to our visitors, and to note how some apartment spaces seemed more effective than others. In Sweatshop Workers, the 1890s Levine apartment successfully immerses visitors in the action of a garment factory, as they imagine Harris and Jennie Levine endeavoring to raise a family in a 325-square-foot apartment almost entirely given over to garment production. The evocative setting and the...


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