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Housing Historic Role Models and the American Dream: Domestic Rhetoric and Institutional Decision-Making at the Tenement Museum

Abstract

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.

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Notes

  1. Although there is a powerful connection between domesticity and the American Dream (see Garb 2005; Spigel 2013), domestic rhetoric is not inherently linked to the American Dream (nor, indeed, to the Tenement Museum). As a rhetorical device, it could be used by other institutions or social actors and in the service of other narratives and ideologies.

  2. In a similar vein, archaeologists attend to working - class and industrial sites such as tenements and factories, using remnants of domestic artifacts such as pottery to evidence agency and struggle in adverse conditions (see Beaudry and Mrozowski 2001; Shackel 2009; and Silliman 2006).

  3. Although the accuracy of the term “restored” is questionable, I use this term to mirror how the Tenement Museum describes its exhibits.

  4. Time constraints meant I was unable to visit the fourth tour. Since writing this article, the Tenement Museum has opened a new tour: Shop Life, which focuses on the 1870s German saloon of John and Caroline Schneider in the building’s storefront.

  5. For recent positions, the museum has required researchers and curators to have at least a Master’s degree in related fields (i.e. history, preservation or library science) and two years of relevant experience. For docents, the museum requires a high school diploma or equivalent (Lower East Side Tenement Museum 2015).

  6. Manager of Donor Relations at the Tenement Museum, personal communication.

  7. Though some museums choose to make stories of suffering their focus (see Lennon and Foley 2000), a tenement museum may not be appealing considering the pervasive and long-enduring view of tenements as filthy, disease-riddenan and dangerous.

  8. Tenants left 97 Orchard Street in the 1930s, which was a common trajectory for housing on New York’s Lower East Side. The area saw a rapid construction of tenements for a working-class population of mostly European immigrants in the mid to late 1800s, and then a sharp population decline in the 1930s, when the area’s buildings were largely vacated except for their store fronts (see Mele 2000).

  9. Lower East Side Tenement Museum Conservation Plan: Ruin Apartments, Hallways, Stairs, and Toilets, Jablonski Berkowitz Conservation, Inc. June 8, 2005. Lower East Side Tenement Museum Archives (hereafter LESTM), 2.

  10. Historic Furnishing Report Gumpertz Apartment Recreation, November 5 2003, LESTM.

  11. Restoration and Furnishings of the Baldizzi and Gumpertz Apartments, LESTM.

  12. Historic Furnishing Report Gumpertz Apartment Recreation, November 5 2003, LESTM.

  13. Ibid.

  14. Ibid.

  15. Outline of LESTM Apartment Tours, Draft October 10 1993, LESTM.

  16. Memo: NEH Re-Created Apartments, January 7 1994, LESTM.

  17. Memo: Gumpertz/Baldizzi remaining objects to be purchased and related interpretive issues, LESTM.

  18. Historic Furnishings Report: The Moore-Meehan Family Apartment, 2004, LESTM.

  19. Lower East Side Tenement Museum. Moore Family.

  20. The Moore Family: An Irish Family in America Minutes of the Second Historical Advisors Meeting. August 2 2004. LESTM.

  21. The Moore Family. LESTM.

  22. Historic Furnishings Report: The Moore-Meehan Family Apartment. 2004 LESTM.

  23. The paint analysis suggested that the layers of paint found, which corresponded to the time period just before the Moores moved into the building, were delicate pastel colors, such as pale blue, sea green, and lavender. These colors, as well as the painting technique used, were fashionable among the nineteenth century middle class and promoted by prominent style-arbiters (The Moore-Meehan Family Apartment 2004).

  24. The Moore-Meehan Family Apartment 2004

  25. Restoration and Furnishings of the Baldizzi and Gumpertz Apartments. LESTM.

  26. Josephine Baldizzi Interview 13 October 1995. LESTM.

  27. Outline of LESTM Apartment Tours, Draft 10 October 1993. LESTM.

  28. Notes on the Baldizzi Apartment planning meeting 24 May, 1993. LESTM.

  29. Ibid.

  30. Memo: Josephine’s comments on the apartment, 4 October, 1994. LESTM.

  31. LESTM Restoration Proposal, 27 June, 1994. LESTM.

  32. Memo: Josephine’s comments on the apartment, 4 October, 1994. LESTM.

  33. Notes on the Baldizzi Apartment. LESTM.

  34. Although, at first, the museum’s researchers thought that the Baldizzi family had lived on the second floor of 97 Orchard Street. Josephine Baldizzi’s memories of a wooden cabinet made by her father, however, pointed the researchers to an apartment on the third floor, which Josephine confirmed had indeed been the apartment in which her family had lived.

  35. This may be related to recent scandals about eminent domain and union-busting in which the museum has recently been embroiled (Chan 2008).

  36. Pelak (2015) posits this kind of collective forgetting—entailing misremembering or selective remembering as narrative forgetting (also see Douglas 2007; Ram 2009).

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Acknowledgements

For comments and suggestions, I thank the editor and reviewers at Qualitative Sociology, Wendy Griswold, Mary Pattillo, Gary Fine, Matthew Johnson, Geneviève Zubrzycki, Melissa Pearson, Kevin Loughran, Jordan Conwell, Vincent Yung, Stefan Vogler, Juliette Galonnier, and Brian Sargent. I also thank archivists at the Tenement Museum.

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Bartram, R. Housing Historic Role Models and the American Dream: Domestic Rhetoric and Institutional Decision-Making at the Tenement Museum. Qual Sociol 40, 1–22 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11133-016-9349-0

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Keywords

  • Cultural institutions
  • Collective memory
  • Museums
  • Domestic space, housing
  • Immigration