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.
NEVER MISS A BEAT
If you liked this episode and want to hear more, sign up for our weekly digest where we'll announce new episodes from our studio, other people's podcasts, exhibits and places we love.
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.
For more immersive media, download our app, Gesso Experiences, or look for us wherever you get your podcasts.
Gesso | Primer