Ever wish you could catapult backwards in time? You can. Enter the perfectly preserved tenement buildings at 97 or 103 Orchard St., Manhattan. For centuries, these tenements were home to hundreds of immigrants working hard to build new lives.
Today, the Tenement Museum tells the stories of these very immigrants with meticulous care. Director of Programs Kathryn Lloyd reflects on the special interdisciplinary blend of education, fact, and imagination that brings their history to life.
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The Tenement Museum in New York City’s Lower East Side is a storytelling museum, and the stories they share are powerful, especially given today’s political climate.
The Tenement Museum was founded in 1988 by historian Ruth Abram and social activist Anita Jacobsen. Ruth and Anita realized that America’s story is a story of immigrants, and these stories often get overlooked in history. They wanted to provide a deeper understanding of these groups of people, their experiences, and how they lived their everyday lives. The tangible result of Ruth and Anita’s storytelling hopes initially came in the form of 97 Orchard Street. But this wasn’t a typical looking building.
An old tenement building that was almost in ruins occupied the address. When Ruth and Anita looked through the area, they were astonished. They found personal items that suggested immigrant families lived in buildings like this one through the 1860s to the 1930s, and Ruth and Anita wanted to preserve this history. From then on, the museum’s mission was established. The Tenement Museum was here to tell the story of immigrant families not just for the purpose of sharing personal anecdotes but also for sharing stories of those who helped contribute to America’s national identity.
The Tenement Museum still operates today, providing tours of the apartments belonging to 19th century and 20th century immigrants arriving from Germany, Romania, Ireland, Puerto Rico, China, and more. Museum staff and educators take great care to research and reimagine the immigrant experience. To learn more about the Tenement Museum’s mission, we spoke with Kathryn Lloyd, the Director of Programs at the Tenement Museum. Kathryn says that at the heart of what the museum does and hopes to spread to its visitors is empathy. “We really look to interpret documents and objects. And then also oral histories, really using this lens of historical imagination and empathy building always sort of knowing too that there are some lines to that, right? There are going to be things that we never know,” says Katherine. Katherine says that museum staff and educators always ask themselves what their boundaries of interpretation are and how they can do this in a way that “feels authentic and respectful to the people while also sort of inspiring those personal connections.”
Kathryn shares a sweet and inspiring story from an experience she had with a young girl back in 2016. Speaking to a group of school children, Kathryn and other museum educators were sharing a story of a family of Jewish immigrants who struggled with the idea of maintaining old traditions while also adopting new ways of doing things in America to fit in. A young girl around the age of 12 who was listening said that this reminded her of herself. Born in a Muslim family, the girl mentioned how it was difficult for them to face similar decisions. Should her family close their business on Islamic holidays or stay open to blend in with American businesses that don’t close? Kathryn reflects on this touching moment saying, “to have a young person be able to make that connection that they're not alone in history, that people have gone through these experiences before even though you know, they might sound a little bit different” is exactly the kind of experience the museum strives to provide.
An idea that began with Ruth and Anita has impacted the lives of museum visitors of all ages for over 150 years, as the museum continues to share the stories of immigrant families. But it’s not just “their” history, it’s our shared history.
You can listen to Kathryn Lloyd from the Tenement Museum in Gesso Media’s episode, Being Human, wherever you get your podcasts and be sure to subscribe to Gesso Media for future releases. The Tenement Museum is located at 103 Orchard St, New York, NY 10002. Interested in visiting? Check out their website for more details.
I’m Georgia Wright, and you’re listening to Gesso — a podcast about human creativity, history, and the spaces we live to learn about.
Let’s dive in.
Illuminated on the Tenement Museum’s website are the following words: “At a time when issues surrounding migrants, refugees, and immigration have taken center stage, the Tenement Museum is a potent reminder that, as a nation shaped by immigration, our brightest hope for the future lies in the lessons of the past.”
Though these words are clearly written in light of current events, the Tenement Museum’s history long predates the Trump era.
In 1988, Ruth Abram, a historian, and Anita Jacobson, a social activist, discovered an abandoned, decrepit tenement building on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The building was cobwebbed, neglected, and grimy; cluttered with personal artifacts of its past residents.
Instead of destroying the building, these two women decided to preserve it. In doing so, Johnson and Abram preserved the histories of the building’s former inhabitants -- almost all of them immigrants.
Today, the Tenement museum leads tour after tour through the refurbished apartments of 19th and 20th century immigrants from Germany, Romania, Ireland, Puerto Rico, China, and more. The families and their struggles are researched and reimagined with painstaking care, brought to life through stories told in vivid detail by museum educators.
The Tenement Museum’s work is more relevant today than ever, as America grapples with anti-Immigrant xenophobia and racism, forces that have proliferated under the Trump administration.
“Hmm, so this comes up… quite a lot.”
This is Kathryn Lloyd, the Director of Programs at the Tenement Museum. She says the museum has been internally wrestling with these questions since Trump took office. What role can a museum play in the political world, if any at all? What does it mean to be a museum about immigration in a time of intense and frightening nationalism?
“We have a responsibility to [00:11:00] shine light on stories of immigrants in the past. We have a responsibility to serve immigrants in New York City today, and we have a responsibility as a museum to really own the political nature of these stories in some way right? I think museums across the globe are really trying to figure out. If a museum isn't neutral what is our position? And so the museum has been working right now, thinking through, Oh, like what what do we really believe about immigration in the United States? What's important really at the base to share with visitors? What's the foundation that we're standing on?”
For Katherine, the answer always comes back to empathy. It’s empathy that connects her visitors with the memories and stories of people who lived in a completely different era than ours, and it’s empathy that makes the Tenement Museum draw crowds year after year.
We really look to interpret documents and objects. And then also oral histories really using this lens of historical imagination and empathy building always sort of knowing too that there are some lines to that, right? like there are going to be things that we never know. And so we always want to be respectful of that like while we might imagine something to be possible. We'll never truly know whether it happened. And so we we really work together to think about like, okay, what are our boundaries of interpretation and how are we doing in this in a way that feels authentic and respectful to the people while also sort of inspiring those those personal connections?
When she was helping lead a school group program, Kathryn was suprised by one student’s surp
A story that that comes to mind a lot is actually one that happened on a school group program. We were leading a group of 6th graders from The Young Women's Leadership Academy and we were telling them the story of the Rogushevsky family and the Rogushevsky family was an Orthodox Jewish Family their first language was Yiddish.
They told the kids that the Rogushevsky family lived in the tenement in the 19-teens. The family had six children -- some were born in Lithuania, some in New York. As Jewish immigrants, assimilation was hard at times. It came with difficult choices about what traditions would carry over from the old world, and what they needed to change to fit in with the new.
We really talked about how the family members were thinking about their culture and how to make decisions about what to keep maybe what to [00:09:00] change in the United States and this like 12 year old girl in a raises her hand and says, This sounds just like my family.
This girl went on to explain that her family was Muslim, and her dad ran a business. Because of this, her family sometimes had to confront a similar decision to the Rogushevskies: When it was Eid, or another Islamic holiday, should they close the business, even if other places aren’t closing? Should they blend in, or risk standing out?
to just have.
Someone who is the same age as one of the children in the Roker Chef ski family be connecting a Jewish story from a hundred years ago to a story of her, you know Muslim family in Queens in this was like in 2016.
Was exactly what the museum is here to do right like to have a young person be able to make that connection that they're not alone in history that people have gone through these experiences before even though you know, they might sound a little bit different.
To have a strong imagination, in this way, is to practice empathy. If you use your imagination to put yourself in the shoes of other people -- whether they’re your neighbors, your predecessors, or strangers on the street, you are practicing the imaginative empathy that drives the Tenement Museum, day after day. It’s empathy for one another’s stories that makes the experience of being a person in this world, a little less lonesome.
We all have the experiences of being Human, right? of waking up in the morning eating breakfast, you know taking care of ourselves and others. So when we are on a tour with visitors, we're turning the research that we've done into a story about being human. Right, and and that's where it really opens up these possibilities for for our visitors to understand like oh Natalie Comforts living as a single mom with four kids trying to run a small business and you know a German neighborhood in the 1860s that may seem really different from my experience, but maybe we are those connection points, right? Like how are we finding some similarities and then understanding differences between us and people in the past.
OUTRO: This interview featured Kathryn Lloyd, Director of Programs at the Tenement Museum.
This podcast was produced for Gesso Media, by me, Georgia Wright.
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