In the Field: "Authenticity" at the Tenement Museum

posted on 31 Jan 2014 21:22 by Gabrielle Berlinger
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On January 28, 2014, the new Mellon curriculum course, "'Cultural Conservation': Preserving Place and Practice" (Gabrielle Berlinger), was held at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. The class met with Dave Favaloro, Director of Curatorial Affairs at the Museum, and Research Fellow at the Hebrew Technical Institute, who led a private group tour of 97 Orchard Street, the Museum's main artifact and site of study, and explained the Museum's philosophies on conservation, restoration, and exhibition design. (To the left: layers of wallpaper are revealed in this conserved yet un-restored apartment.)

The Tenement Museum, conceived by Ruth Abram as place for immigrants and their descendants to dialogue about their experiences, is concerned with the stabilization and continuity of its building at 97 Orchard street. The Museum uniquely houses both antiques and replicas of personal belongings that represent the people who lived in the tenement apartments. The building was first occupied in the year 1863 and was home to over 7,000 immigrants from 20 nations until it was condemned in 1935. It was thereafter sealed and left in a state of decay until 1988 when the Tenement Museum moved in and received its charter.

Upon entering the building on our tour, the layers of history were immediately noticeable. The authentic, peeling paint of the main hallway juxtaposed the contemporary “Exit” sign and fire alarm. The precarious plaster chips hanging above our heads looked as if they could fall at any minute. The walls were peeling, holed, covered in years of dust and dirt. The stairs above were creaking as fellow museum-goers walked through the apartments. Exposed wiring and piping added to the overall appearance of disregard. After the initial shock of entering such a decaying state, we began to take in the nuances of the building. Aided by Dave Favaloro, we noticed the elements of the building that revealed the museum’s preservation and education decisions.

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The building is an actual artifact, the Museum's main artifact, and one that is cared for to ensure the safety of its over 200,000 annual visitors. Moreover, it is an historic site that educates the public about the history of the building, its working-class immigrant occupants, the Lower East Side neighborhood, immigration, and tolerance. To maintain all of these goals, and those of safety and education, the museum is not all restored; some of its architectural elements are decaying, while other are restored to reflect specific periods of occupancy. This contrast is seen in the entrance hall with one roundel painting on the wall that has decidedly been left dirty, facing another roundel on the opposite wall, which has been cleaned and restored. As another example, a first floor apartment has been conserved but not restored, to reveal the many layers of wallpaper and linoleum that were applied to the space over time. The staff has made similar circumstantial decisions throughout the building to balance their priorities.

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Throughout our tour, Dave gave us interesting insights into the staff’s challenge of representing the 70 years that the tenement was inhabited. The apartments, he explained, have been treated in different ways to demonstrate the many decades. For instance, both reconstructed outhouses and indoor toilets are maintained on the site to represent the conditions both before and after the 20th century’s tenement regulations. Additionally, after application, it was discovered that the replicated wallpaper of the Gumperz’s apartment derived from a later decade than the family’s occupancy but the staff decided to leave it in place. Dave explained that it is a challenge to encompass all of the personal stories, architectural changes, and historical moments within the building’s prime. The conversations that flowed while observing these opposing elements made the Museum’s decisions more palpable.

Review and photographs by Zahava Friedman-Stadler and Annabel Keenan, M.A. students in the class.

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