It was a snowy Monday during February in the Lower East Side of Manhattan when I visited the Tenement Museum. I had expected to walk up and down the narrow staircases of the Five Floor building, peering into dusty recreations of the original apartments in the building, 97 Orchard Street. I knew that the building was part of the immigrant history project, so I imagined that would be the focus of the museum exhibits as well. My visit was prompted by my Museum Interaction Design class, but I was excited about visiting, as I had noticed the building while exploring the neighborhood over the summer. However, it wasn't until visiting the website to purchase tickets that I realized that the museum was dedicated to a series of guided, interactive tours of very specific parts of the tenement building, each with its own narrative of the history for that space. I chose the Shop Life tour, which focused on the business located at the bottom floor of the tenement. The tour followed primarily the lives of German immigrants, John and Caroline Schneider, who owned Schneider’s Lager Beer Saloon from 1864 to 1886. Given that I was there to understand how the Tenement Museum told the story of these immigrants and how well it engendered interaction with the visitors, my experience was framed within that context. I was also attempting to parse out weather the museums mission of preserving and sharing the immigrant experience of New York, that shaped the entire country, was met by this exhibit.
I arrived late to my tour (originally scheduled for 11:15am 2/3/14) because of the heavy snow and subway delays, but the folks at the museum gift shop and ticket center were accommodating and placed me in the 12pm tour instead. The gift shop was clean, modern and spacious- much like a smaller version of the San Francisco MOMA store. It did not speak in design to the tenement itself, or evoke any sense of the past in its style. It almost seemed to belong to another museum altogether. I noticed that the tour group was intimate, 5 people total. A friendly couple of women in their 60s-70s, and another husband and wife pair in their 40s-50s. All attendees were white, except for myself being a 33 year old mixed race woman. John Falk states that studies have shown that museum goers are likely to be white, well educated and affluent, although other research in Los Angeles has confirmed that race/ethnicity, age, and education level do not predict who will visit museums. So I guess the turnout was predictable, but also I know nothing about the education levels of the participants. Apparently there are, according to this Falk character, five types of museum goers which I will outline below. I encourage you to decide which you are!
Explorers: People who want to explore the museum at their own pace, driven by curiosity. Even if they come with a group, they will often break off and find something to fuel their learning. This is likely my style of museum going, always hopping from one exhibit to the next, looking for my favorite one.
Facilitators: Visitors who are there to interact with friends or others they are educating or experiencing the museum with. Think of a father taking his daughter to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, teaching her about jelly fish and sharks.
Professionals/Hobbyists: People who visit the museum because it is in line with their hobby, work, or passion. Imagine a working musician visiting the Rock and Roll History Museum, looking to find out about the kind of guitar or playing style her favorite musician favored. She would be there to learn.
Experience Seekers: Visitors to museums who primarily go because it is an experience worth having. Tourists, experience collectors, and even hipsters might fall under the "been there, done that " category.
Rechargers: People who visit a museum to have a spiritual, meditative, or transcendent experience. Someone with a love of nature might visit the botanical gardens, Japanese meditation Garden and find a peaceful reprieve.
In the case of my visit to the Tenement Museum, I believe that the husband and wife, from Australia, were going to the museum as experience seekers and tourists. I also believe that the other two women, who appeared to be friends were both facilitator types. They seemed interested in sharing with the group their experiences and educating us about the history of New York, as locals, as well as their own personal histories. The tour guide, Sarah, was very friendly and well spoken. She started us out by asking about our own heritage and where we were from. We were also told that the tour was more of a conversation than a one-way education experience. We learned about the history of the space and neighborhood, as well as the original family, the Schneiders, that had run the saloon in the tenement. She stressed diversity of immigrants in the 1800s and said that Germany then was 39 states and not one united Germany as we think of now. She emphasized the struggle they had becoming assimilated into an English speaking city. After that, we explored the kitchen and living quarters of the family, which were very small as well. Next we went into a room which was still in its ruined state, that had not been recreated. There we looked at little artifacts in a glass cabinet they had discovered in rats nests and in the walls from the families that had lived and worked in the space.
Three distinct narratives formed: that of the aforementioned German family circa 1860s, that of a Kosher Butcher shop which existed in the early 1900s, and finally the Jewish family who owned the underwear store which took over in the 1950s and 60s. Finally, we were ushered into the final room of the tour, which was an old shop counter turned into an interactive museum exhibit. The exhibit, designed by the interaction firm, Potion, was really interesting in terms of story telling, design, and technology. The interaction was designed around having the visitor take an object from the shelves, which pertained to one of the the three narratives, and place it on the interactive table. Once on the table, the object would trigger a visual story which prompts one to pick up a receiver to hear a story, click on pictures to read more text and see more pictures. Each object was tied to a particular story, so you had to pick the one you wanted to know more about. There was some confusion at the end of the interactive segment, where in which a few of the visitors were unsure about where to place their objects and missed the closing message coming from the handset. There was also confusion among multiple visitors about how to navigate the touch screen interface; I had to click on four pictures before I found the narrative track I wanted.
The design of the interface was lovely to look at, but the logic of the design left something to be desired. I asked the guide about the tech behind the table, and she could tell me very little, but according to Potion's website, the objects are using RFID (microchips) that trigger the projections associated with them. The audio players are based on Arduino boards, but the touch screen is some proprietary creation of the firm. The focus of the interactive exhibit was to educate visitors about the stories of the immigrant families and by doing so, give context to the cultural, political, and historical conditions of the time. The museum did a great job at carrying out their mission in this way. I did find that it gave me new awareness of the neighborhood and its history as well as an interest and awareness of the resources of the museum has both onsite and online.
One resource of the museum website I will be using in the future is the Photo Archive. Since the museum disallows the use of photography within its walls, this is a great way to take home more learning about the history of the site and the neighborhood. I found this resource because I was writing this blog and poking around the site, but I do not think that the average visitor will even know about this resource. Unless a visitor is told by the tour guide or some other printed or digital material, they will never see it. I will leave you with this photo from the archive, taken by Arnold Eagle in 1935, of a Jewish woman teaching girls to folk dance. I hope it encourages you to visit the museum when you are in New York as well as the archive when you are at home.