Housing Historic Role Models and the American Dream: Domestic Rhetoric and Institutional Decision-Making at the Tenement Museum
How does a social history museum end up obfuscating issues it intends to highlight? How does the Tenement Museum—an institution committed to “challenging the future” by “revealing the past”—come to obscure structural issues related to housing, immigration, and poverty? Through a comparison of participant observation of tours and analysis of institutional archives at the Tenement Museum, I show how decisions made for pragmatic reasons and materialized into domestic spaces obfuscate structural issues, both in the past and the present. Specifically, I demonstrate how the museum advances historic role models and the American Dream through depictions of tenement apartments, thereby displacing the very issues that tenement housing encapsulates. It is not news to sociologists that museums depict selective narratives that reinforce cultural tropes. Nor is it surprising that museums use domestic space as a mnemonic vehicle through which to portray the narratives they select. What is surprising, however, is that this happens in a museum that is invested in challenging the narratives it ends up depicting. Unpacking how this happens is especially pertinent because of the prevalence of museums that depict domestic spaces of the past, given the increased necessity for museums to educate in order to secure funding, and in light of contemporary political debates over housing and immigration.