How historic role models leave no room for structural inequality at the Tenement Museum

Tenement Museumby Robin Bartram

How does a left-leaning social history museum with progressive intentions end up obscuring structural inequality? My recent study answers this question using observations and archival research at New York City’s Lower East Side Tenement Museum.

If you visit the Tenement Museum, docents show you around recreated living spaces of 18th and 19th century immigrant families. These apartments are full of objects that docents use as props to tell stories about the lives of their former inhabitants.

Take the example of the restored apartment of the German-Jewish immigrant Gumpertz family who lived in the building in the 1870s. Climbing a narrow staircase, docents tell visitors to imagine Natalia Gumpertz carrying heavy buckets of water up these steps. Inside the apartment, docents pass around an iron so visitors can feel the weight Natalia would have had to endure, and point to a sewing machine to explain that Natalia worked as a seamstress to provide for her children after being deserted by her husband during an economic depression.

Natalia’s hard work paid off, visitors learn, as she was eventually able to move her family to a New York suburb.

Over and over, docents use props to tell stories about Natalia’s hard work, resilience, and eventual triumph in the face of adversity. As such, Natalia is an example of what I came to call a “historic role model” because of the way the museum stresses her endurance and ultimate success.

Interested to know more about curatorial decisions leading to the depiction of historic role models, I analyzed a portion of the museum’s rich institutional archives. I was struck by what I read. The museum’s founders had wanted to tell a different story about Natalia.

Researchers at the museum had scoured newspapers from 1878 to accurately situate the apartment in its political and economic context, noting drastic wage cuts and the high rate of unemployment in New York at the time, the frequency with which men abandoned their families and women were breadwinners, Jewish class mobility, the stalled construction of new housing, and the resultant rallies and riots in the city.

This research did not make it into the tours. Instead, the museum ignores the structural forces that caused Natalia’s situation and allowed for her success. Docents laud Natalia’s choice to work as a seamstress as remarkable and resilient, marking her as a historic role model because she acted to make her situation – as a working-class immigrant woman – better.

Left unsaid are discussions of the structural causes and consequences of single motherhood, economic crises, intersections of ethnicity and class, let alone housing.

I noticed this mismatch – between curatorial intentions and outcomes – in other exhibits too.

Cleanliness and pride despite hard times

As I read through early drafts of the tour content for the 1935 Italian-Catholic Baldizzi family apartment, it was clear that museum researchers were keen to bring up questions about housing policy, immigration, eviction, and welfare. Tours of this apartment were intended to prompt visitors to consider whether the government did enough to help and protect families like the Baldizzis.

 Other archival documents about the Baldizzi apartment contain lists of items to include in the exhibit, ranging from cleaning products and lacy curtains to a leaky faucet and trash in the air shaft. Yet only some of these things made it into the exhibit.

The kitchen is full of cleaning products, an ironing board and hanging laundry, and overall the apartment looks clean, and freshly painted, with colorful bedcovers and lacy curtains. On tours, docents point to the ironing board and lacy curtains as they tell visitors about the pride that Mrs. Baldizzi mother took in maintaining a clean apartment and the zealousness with which she scrubbed pots. There is no leaky faucet or trash in the air shaft.

What happens when stories are materialized

The objects that curators select to display in the apartment exhibits – sewing machines, irons, lacy curtains, cleaning materials, and pillows with American flags – allow docents to tell certain stories and make it much harder to tell others. The items have additional power because docents point to them as proof for the stories they tell.  I call this tautological evidentiary process “domestic rhetoric.”

As the term “domestic” connotes physical dwelling space and the décor, furniture and household objects of everyday living, and “rhetoric” is to do with persuasion, domestic rhetoric is the process through which social actors use material domestic spaces as proof for claims about their inhabitants.

Domestic rhetoric is a powerful tool for forging collective memories.  In the case of the Tenement Museum, domestic rhetoric affords a kind of collective forgetting of the precise structural issues encapsulated by tenement housing, such as economic exploitation, lack of decent affordable housing, unequal opportunities, ethnic and racial discrimination, and inequities in access to housing.

But why is this? Why would a museum betray its own intentions? I came to realize that this mismatch between intentions and outcomes was a result of pragmatic necessity.

Reaching the hearts of the public and the pockets of funders

The museum had to create stories and exhibits that visitors wanted to see and funders wanted to support. Since the museum’s inception, its founders had been concerned that visitors might not want to see the squalor of 19th century tenements. Its unusual combination of social history and architecture also did not appeal to standard sources of funding. Thus, the museum’s founders decided to create dramatic stories that captured the trials and triumphs of tenement inhabitants.

The importance of the past for the present

It is increasingly important to question how museums select narratives because funds for cultural institutions are fast diminishing. As such, places like the Tenement Museum may have to think more pragmatically than ever, thereby becoming increasingly susceptible to pressures, limitations, and depictions of the past preferred by funders rather than curators and researchers.

There are other reasons we might want to know how museums work. Tens of thousands of people visit the Tenement Museum every year, including 44,000 school children. What these visitors learn – in terms of what kinds of government involvement is necessary, how and by whom housing is regulated and allocated, and what kinds of immigrants are role models or valuable members of US society – is arguably more critical now than ever.

Robin Bartram is a PhD candidate in Sociology at Northwestern University investigating the origins and implications of housing inspections and building code violations.

This article summarizes the findings from “Housing Historic Role Models and the American Dream: Domestic Rhetoric and Institutional Decision-Making at the Tenement Museum” in Qualitative Sociology.

Image: Shawn Hoke “Tenement Museum Kitchen, 3rd Floor” via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)


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