Museums, Oral History and Social Change Part 2: Hearing Voices at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum

by Ellen Brooks

Let me be one of the first people ever to suggest that hearing multiple voices in your head is a good thing. In fact, supplying visitors with these voices is part of the mission of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, where I have had the profound pleasure of interning this summer. If you leave a trip to the Tenement Museum without hearing the voices of multiple immigrants, residents or workers from the Lower East Side’s past conversing in your head, I’d suggest you speak with your doctor or demand a refund.

Thinking back on what I’ve accomplished and gained here at the Museum this summer, it occurs to me that the most valuable take-away is not something new that I’ve learned, but a reinforcement (and reinvigoration) of a conviction that I’ve held about public history: Its responsibility to present multiple perspectives. Forget two sides to every story – I’d argue that there are innumerable sides to every story. The wonderful thing about the Tenement Museum’s work is the commitment to introduce visitors to not one or two stories but multiple, as many as can be accessed and made accessible within the time of a museum visit. By hosting these voices and offering these diverse perspectives, a museum has the opportunity to earnestly impact the way individuals view the worlds of yesterday, today and tomorrow.

One of my most significant contributions this summer has been to help find ways to integrate oral histories into the Museum’s educational programming, working most closely on the development of our new walking tour, which focuses on commerce and community on the LES. For this tour, I’ve interviewed four business owners in the community with four very different perspectives of what it means to run a business in this neighborhood. I interviewed the owner of an art gallery that opened on Orchard Street in 2011 and I interviewed the owner of a hosiery store who was in the process of being forced out of his storefront because he was unable to afford the neighborhood’s rising rents. This is an archetypal example of who is moving into the LES storefronts (today there are over 100 art galleries here, and more coming) and who is moving out (from the 1970s until very recently the LES was the place to go to buy underwear). I also interviewed (separately) a father and a son who have both (separately) run the family fabric business and who offered insight into not only how their business has grown and changed since it sprang from a pushcart stand on Orchard Street in 1936, but also how the Lower East Side itself has grown and changed, and thoughts on what the future may hold. Each of these interviews, as well as others collected for the project, adds a new layer to the story we are telling on this tour.

Howard Sportswear was forced to vacate this space at 69 Orchard Street in August 2013

Strange Loop Gallery show 2012

Pulling multiple voices into one coherent, informative, unbiased, entertaining narrative is where the real challenge lies. We can only curate these perspectives so much. There comes a point at which we (oral historians and/or museum professionals) have to let go and trust our audience. To take as an example our newest tour, it would be very easy to paint a picture of a romantic past of pushcarts and family businesses that is being trampled by trendy boutiques and hipster coffee bars. And that is a part of the narrative. But if the Museum stopped there, visitors would never get to meet Claire Fleury, owner of Strange Loop gallery.

Oral histories and personal stories often offer museum visitors the unexpected. And using these voices removes some of the burden (and power) of authority from the Museum. How does Claire’s story interact with that of the hosiery business owner who has to leave the neighborhood? The honest (and, I think, exciting) answer is that the Museum doesn’t have to resolve this conundrum. Instead of saying, “art galleries are changing everything” or “maybe the influx of art galleries on the LES isn’t all bad,” Museum educators can introduce visitors to Claire and to the merchant of yesterday and let them decide for themselves what they think about the changing scene here on Orchard Street.

Navigating the pitfalls and rewards of offering multiple perspectives is a situation in which all museums will (or should) find themselves. But it is imperative that museums rise to this challenge in order to be agents of social change by fostering a place for community and conversation. Of course, effecting social change will not be a priority for many museums, and the argument can be made that it shouldn’t be. However, the Tenement Museum, and many similar institutions, embraces this role. In my oral-history oriented, emerging-museum-professional opinion, the very core objective of a museum should be connecting people to the past, connecting the past to today and connecting today to the future.