The Many Conservation Cultures: Lower East Side Tenement Museum

posted on 25 Nov 2013 06:05 by Hanna Hoelling
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The last visit of the Fall 2013 course Cultures of Conservation took place on November 12 at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. Our guest speakers Gabrielle Berlinger and David Favaloro discussed how conservation may relate both to the care of material fabric and cultural values. Student Ariel Rosenblum authored the following summary of this class.

The Cultures of Conservation course conducted a final site visit for the semester at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. Ruth Abram and Anita Jacobson founded the museum in 1988 and opened its first restored apartment in 1992. Aspiring to open a museum dedicated to America’s immigrants but struggling to find a space, the founders stumbled upon the abandoned tenement apartments on 97 Orchard Street while considering a storefront to run tours out of. Between 1863 and 1935, 97 Orchard was a tenement apartment building, home to nearly 7,000 working class immigrants. Tenants were evicted in 1935 when the landlord was unable to comply with new fire codes. In 1988 Abram and Jacobson discovered this time capsule, the tenement had been unoccupied and untouched for decades, the perfect vernacular space to tell the story of immigrants’ lives in New York City.

David Favaloro, Director, Curatorial Affairs & Hebrew Technical Institute Research gave the class a tour while focusing discussion on the tension and harmony between the building’s material conservation and the cultural conservation of tenants’ stories and tenement living. Gabrielle Berlinger, Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at the BGC currently conducting research at the Tenement Museum joined the class. As both a restoration and ruin, we talked about the museum in relation to the opposing ideas of Viollet-le-Duc and Ruskin.

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The Tenement Museum does not freeze one moment or experience in time. Departing from historic house models, they weave together the stories of families from different parts of the tenement’s history. Using primary documents such as census and voting records, obituaries, newspaper articles, and first person accounts, the museum is able to revive the past. Objects found in the building, or given by families of individuals who lived in the tenement, help to recreate an understanding of what once was. Some of these objects are on display in cases, but most of them are in the museum’s study collection. On tours, guides may pass around reproduced objects for visitors to handle, like a heavy iron once used to press clothes.

This idea of making history tangible and accessible through reproduced authentic experiences sparked quite a lot of discussion. What interactive and sensory experiences aid in the story telling? What might detract? As an example, David told us that when they installed the latrines outside of the tenement there was debate about whether to give them an “authentic” latrine smell. Our experience of that smell today would register much differently in our 21st century brains, than it would for those who lived there one hundred years ago. While it was decided that smell would detract rather than contribute to an authentic experience, music on the other hand, central to many immigrants’ lives is part of some tours giving us an understanding of what the tenement sounded like and the cultures of people who lived their.

The reconstructed living spaces, analogous to theatre sets, are furnished with bought artifacts similar to those that residents would have owned. Going beyond the staged spaces, we discussed the tours themselves as performance. Some of the tours incorporate “living history” in which case re-enactors interact with visitors who also take on character roles. Whether or not a tour has a “living history” component, we agreed that they all have performative aspects. Every tour guide develops their own method for telling the stories, and all participants are encouraged to contribute their own family histories and perspectives. As each tour is a unique, unrepeatable experience of shared conversation and knowledge, in essence a performance piece, the question was raised: should the tours themselves be documented? How would video or audio recording alter those “performances”? In what other ways could the museum document visitors’ experience and input as artifact?

Thorough structural work has enabled these tours to take place in the building, allowing hundreds of visitors to walk through the space everyday. But the large paint flakes that texture the walls seem to hang on by sheer determination, and point to the reality of the buildings age and condition. The constant movement through the space contributes to deterioration, but what would the impact be without the space? Ultimately, David explained the museum believes that the building is worth its educational value; the stories and its visitors drive its conservation.

With deterioration inevitable, monitoring is essential to the building’s conservation. Every month a single floor is shut down so that an assessment can be done. Jablonski Building Conservation has worked with the Tenement Museum to address issues. A unique variety of strategies are employed, which can be seen throughout the building- from clear plastic tacks that hold wallpaper down, to foam spackle that suspend warped pieces of wall in place, strings that prevent visitors from touching walls, and floor mats that absorb vibrations. Gabrielle and David introduced the concept of “slow conservation,” which acknowledges change over time, while focusing on consistent preventative treatments that emphasize the local environment and site-specific conditions. Preserving the buildings layout remains the most important for creating an educational experience now and for the future.

The Tenement Museum visit gave us a lot to think about in regards to navigating and finding balance between material and cultural conservation.

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