I was completely and pleasantly surprised by our trip to the Tenement Museum. Although I knew the building used to be a tenement, I assumed that it would have been completely gutted and refurbished, no more than a land marker. However, instead of a collection of photos enclosed in the shell of what was a tenement, the building, inside and out, was a true monument to the people who lived inside its walls. Just by standing in the narrow hallways and under the low ceilings, I was able to feel and conceive what life really was in these tenements, which is more than a posed photo could ever convey.
When one of the staff members informed me that there would be a role playing component to the tour, I was a little leery. After all, many historical reenactments as made popular by Renaissance fairs and events like them are a little cheesy and more entertaining than educational or representational of the real lives they attempt to portray. The actress who portrayed the young immigrant girl was extremely convincing and engaging. She not only told us her story of immigration and about her life in America, but also of her personal story as an immigrant. A great deal can be said for this sort of preservation, with a person speaking the words and living the life of person that existed almost one hundred years ago, if only for a moment. Not only were the living quarters and technologies of the time made three dimensional, but the accent, speech and emotions of a living human were brought to life as well.
I really believe that more museum exhibitions should be curated in a similar style to that of the tenement museum. Just like the way walking in a actual WWII submarine is a more enriching experience than seeing a picture of one, the tenement museum is probably the best way to learn about the history of early 20th century immigrants.