The Lower East Side Tenement Museum: Materiality and Change

posted on 25 Sep 2014 02:25 by sumolsen
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By Carlie Fishgold and Lara Schilling
“A house that is as dynamic as this allows the poet to inhabit the universe. Or, to put it differently, the universe comes to inhabit his house.” Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space

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On Tuesday, September 16th, Hanna Hölling's Cultures of Conservation and Gabrielle Berlinger's Vernacular New York classes visited the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, which is housed in a former tenement building on 97 Orchard Street. The Tenement Museum's mission is to preserve and interpret the history of immigration through the personal experiences of the generations of newcomers who settled in and built lives on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, America’s iconic immigrant neighborhood; forge emotional connections between visitors and immigrants past and present; and enhance appreciation for the profound role immigration has played and continues to play in shaping America’s evolving national identity.

The Museum understands the architectural structure on 97 Orchard as the main artifact in its collection, using it to both evoke the lives of its former inhabitants as well as draw attention to the materiality of the building itself and its status as a changing subject.

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When the founders entered the site in 1988, its apartments were in ruin; no one had been in them for over 50 years. While we might be tempted to see this as an ideal situation, with the building functioning as an untouched time capsule filled with stories waiting to be told, the very concept of the time capsule is premised on an ability to arrest the flow of time and isolate historical moments. Contemporary conservation theorists refute the notion of a singular, original state or moment to which it is possible to return. Instead, they focus on developing a variety of strategies for mediating knowledge of the past that acknowledge loss and irretrievability while still fostering authentic experiences in the present. This approach is reflected in both the Tenement Museum's mission to preserve and interpret, as well as in its separate preservation philosophy, which is “predicated on retaining the palpable sense of history contained within its walls, and on providing both the experience of the tenement as it was found, and as people lived there.”

A tour led by David Favaloro, Director of Curatorial Affairs, gave us an in-depth look at how the museum exercises the tenets of its Conservation Management Plan through rehabilitative, preservative, restorative, and reconstructive practices. Each portion of the building is assessed on a case-by-case basis to determine the appropriate conservation method to be used. Two of the four apartments on each of the building's upper floors are preserved as they were found to the greatest extent possible. The other two apartments are restored to different, significant moments in the building's social history.

An experiential account of our visit follows:

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Disembarking from a Brooklyn-bound B train through the fringe of Chinatown chaos, mom-and-pop stores and gastro-kitsch boutiques, the way to 97 Orchard Street naturally attunes the senses to the palimpsest of the metropolitan ecosystem. With the stout stature of so many Lower East Side buildings, the sky is an open backdrop for sifting through the physical signs of what led to the neighborhood’s current state.

Take a bricoleur’s walk, and look: architectural adornments, storefront façade styles, physical aspects predating or evading the revisionary effects of city planning codes, the origin of clays used for bricks, and painted advertisements—all are a plain-view profusion of messages in tangible form. Though we may have a much less significant ratio of the things contained within the walls of these buildings over as many as two centuries, what we do have is a sort of black box theater for site-specific interpretations of the remains. The Tenement Museum trains its audience to experience inquiry in this way, inside and outside.

Consider the structure as a living personality, and it may be easier to think of its encapsulation of the immigrant saga without the misconception of time as being static. The museum is an ongoing project in the connoisseurship of aging, thus the building maintenance is highly specialized to accommodate restorations in different rooms to alternate moments of its history. That there is “no single notion of authenticity,” according to Favaloro, is especially reflected in the preserved ruins of the as-found condition of the apartment space on the second floor. Plaster and lath peek through twenty-something layers of wallpaper that bear handwritten dress sizes in graphite, the relic of a former tenant’s occupation. Original floorboards, crumbling ceilings, a fire door that opens to the next apartment, and evidence of the 1924 switch from gas to electric lighting are the major remaining features.

This room may seem shockingly empty to an audience accustomed to living history museums like the Genesee Country Museum or Historic Williamsburg, where situational reenactments are accompanied by fully furnished “period” settings of new and rehabilitated props. Fetishization of the object is almost completely removed in this particular Tenement Museum space (although other apartments do contain a fuller inventory of temporally appropriate objects, even performers) and it becomes a sketch of what once was, or could have been, as per the specs of the poetic mind. The viewer is invited to witness a stabilized and controlled decomposition of this particular space to envision the known contexts of 151 years of life forces that were once contained within those walls, and continue as the life of the museum progresses.

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In terms of objects, the banister—straight and narrow at an angle that begs to be shimmied—is an original design feature. Indeed, how many have slid down the rail on the way out the door, adults and children alike? The banister holds one’s hand, and has held thousands before. Deeper analysis triggers in almost anyone the idea that the objects through which we incorporate our most ordinary movements are perhaps the most powerful vessels for re-imagining what we share in common with those who carried out the same motions before us. It acts as an integral performative aspect to the framework of this living theater and is a consummate example of the power behind the Tenement Museum’s multiple approaches.

By whatever means most grounded in the present, seek out the Tenement Museum as a touchstone to transcend the binary of time/space. Taking a cab might short change the experience. Tuck the earbuds and sunglasses away. Allow a walking journey to impress upon your senses the existential circumstances of urban metamorphosis as you approach and cross the threshold of the destination. What you will find inside is a concentrated version of what is outside. And that’s transparency, in real time.

Images: Lower East Side Tenement Museum

Carlie Fishgold and Lara Schilling are M.A. Candidates at the Bard Graduate Center

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