The Tenement Museum

When I heard that we were going to visit a tenement museum, I did not know what to expect. I thought we would simply be visiting a museum that emulates the characteristics of the conditions of tenements during the influx of immigrants to the United States in the 1900s. I thought we would be simply examining artifacts from that time period and learning historical facts. In my mind, i was picturing a museum similar to that on Liberty Island where many immigrants landed when they immigrated to United States. I was pleasantly surprised to find that we were learning about tenements in a more creative way. It was a great experience to be able to role play and see the world from the point of view of immigrants. Analyzing the postcards was also very interesting because it allowed us to see the different symbolism used by different cultures.  For example, the cycle of life that was portrayed on the postcards with a Jewish influence was very interesting because it depicted the important aspects of life in the Jewish community. The role playing when we went up to the tenement ro meet Victoria was a new experience. The actress who played Victoria was very good and managed to load the conversation with a lot of information about the life of immigrants time period (such as education facilities and the types of jobs available to people). She was very engaging and allowed us a way to experience the life of an immigrant. It was also interesting to see how the descendants of the real Victoria have become integrated in the country. The whole idea of using a story line and the life of a real live immigrant made the experience much more engaging as well as believable. Overall this trip was both informative and highly entertaining.

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The Tenement Museum

My expectations for the Tenement Museum were very much like everyone else’s, a standard museum with a few exhibits, some informative posters, perhaps a few galleries, and a small theater for viewing a sentimental immigration film. In fact I completely walked by the museum on my first past and only located it because of the giant signs advertising its renovation at the end of the block. Being the child of an immigrant who came to this country at a young age, I have had a very estranged view of immigration. I understand it in the intellectually sense, and living in New York City immigration is not some esoteric concept to me, but I have no true sense of comprehension. I am not an immigrant and my father rarely speaks of himself immigrating as a child.

The idea of leaving my native country, my friends and family, to live in a tenement, not knowing the language and not having a job is a very unreal concept for me. I know that it happened but can’t conceive of the gritty realities of such a life.  I know that my grandfather was unable to work as a lawyer in the United States due to licensing differences and so he gave up his profession to come to this country, but I cannot imagine doing the same.

The role-play rendered these vaunted intellectual ideas in a sharper light of realism. The actress who played Victoria Contino was on point the entire time and even though our participation was not the best she managed to engage us. Her diligence in remaining in character was admirable and the snippets of Spanish, which she interwove into her dialogue, was natural, even her accent was convincing. Too see as close as could be depicted, the accommodations of an immigrant family was astonishing, and it really brought to light how many modern conveniences we take for granted.

I truly enjoyed the experience.

-Jeremy Quail

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The Tenement Museum Time Machine

        Walking into the Tenement Museum was like walking through a time machine. I would have never expected a tenement apartment building from 1863 to be so well preserved in Manhattan. Our visit started in the museum’s gift shop, which did not give me any clues about the actual museum. Our tour began with a short introduction into the history of New York City and the immigrants that came here during the 19th and 20th centuries. We also saw cards, decorated with a variety of symbols, which were used by immigrants to stay in touch with their families across the seas. The best part of the tour was a visit to the restored apartment upstairs. The apartment looked exactly like it would have when it was occupied by immigrants from Europe. Every detail was carefully recreated to convince us that we were back in the early 20thcentury. The actress playing Victoria Confino was deeply immersed in her character and was very welcoming. We played new immigrants in a German family and interacted enthusiastically with Victoria. The conversation included subjects like schools, places to visit, jobs, and other important topics that immigrants, even today, need to know in order to start a new life in a new city. As the conversation progressed, it brought back memories of my own arrival in the United States. I could now better understand how an immigrant in the early 20th century lived in New York City. The Tenement Museum is not only holding on to the humble history of New York, but is presenting it in a highly realistic and interactive way that makes an impact in the people who experience it. It may be a small museum, but the stories it conveys, and the atmosphere it creates make it nothing short of a time machine.


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A Tenement Acting Experience!

Well, Macaulay blog world (a.k.a. Prof. Berger’s CHC class), here I am!

When our class visited the Tenement Museum, I really enjoyed acting like a German immigrant. This is probably because I still have a foot in both worlds. I came to America in 2002, with all sorts of odd German mannerisms and expectations. Going to the tenement museum was like traveling back in time to redo my move here. Of course, it was easier because I had dual-citizenship at the time of my “immigration,” and the comforts of the 21st century are much more reassuring than that tenement.

The immigrant game at the beginning of the group tour was slightly awkward because we didn’t know how to respond to the woman’s questions. It was exciting to learn about this great city’s past, though, and I’m glad I had this experience. It would have been a lot more interesting if the woman that was explaining everything to us had been in costume. Despite her lack of enthusiasm and convincing dress, she was a pretty good guide.

Our own personal Victoria Confino was a whole different story. The actress was in character the whole time, and didn’t seem phased in the least when we deigned to respond to some of her questions. I have to admit I got a bit annoyed at the fact that the group often didn’t speak up to help the poor actress out in her quest to interest us in her character’s life. Honestly, I found it much less awkward and more enjoyable when I started to play along. She even let me do LAUNDRY!

I learned a few things during our tenement escapades two weeks ago:

There are so many questions that immigrants need to ask before they can be secure in a new country, especially if they are not familiar with the language! Also, Victoria Confino was quite the interesting 14-year-old, and I now know that bamboo symbolizes longevity in China. First and foremost, however, I know that I never, ever want to be Nick’s daughter. 😉 I enjoy the dance halls and school to much!

I hope you all had a similarly engaging experience!



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Tenement Museum – Lauren Holtz

Personally, I was excited to go to the Tenement Museum as History is not only one of my favorite subjects, but one of my hobbies outside of school as well. As far as the history of tenement museums, I had only seen photographs in American History textbooks. Although these photographs showed themes of poverty and squalor, they had a certain romantic aesthetic. This is what I was hoping to find on my trip to the museum.

I was a bit disappointed that we only spent a limited amount of time in what I would consider the “museum” part of the Tenement Museum. I was hoping to see much more of the building.

Still I found the one room that we did visit very interesting and I was pleasantly surprised that every part of the exhibit was within our reach and we were actually able to experience the exhibit hands-on. I enjoyed being taught the Confino method of doing laundry. Laundry is very important to me and would probably be the first thing I would worry or ask about when moving to a new place.

I found the role-playing aspect a bit contrived but I suppose that it was unavoidable. Personally, I don’t mind learning just by being told facts, but honestly I don’t know if either method, lecture or role-play, is more effective or enjoyable.

I especially found the role-playing to be excessively contrived before I knew that Victoria Confino was a real person who had lived in that Tenement. I originally thought that she was just a hypothetical character. I think it’s wonderful that they are telling a real person’s story and that the family is still involved in the telling of that story.

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I really had no idea what to expect when I heard we would be visiting the Tenement Museum. I assumed it would be a regular museum with various exhibits including photos, articles, and primary sources providing information about immigrants coming to New York City. However, much to my surprise, the museum actually included a real tenement, fully furnished, and in the same exact condition as it was so many years ago. My favorite aspect of the tour of  the tenement was seeing all the different tools and methods used by the family to cook, eat, clean, bathe, etc. I will admit that I hoped to learn a little bit more about the different types of people that immigrated, and perhaps read more first hand accounts of the experience, but overall it was an interesting and thought-provoking visit.

-Sarah Inbar

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The Tenement Museum

This was my first visit to the Tenement Museum and I enjoyed the trip. The Tenement Museum provided us with a unique museum experience, rather than a tour guide speaking as we looked at artifacts behind glass cases.

While the museum mentioned information that I have previously been taught, it provided a different point of view and supplied me with more information. I was surprised to learn that the legal definition of a tenement is a building that has three or more unrelated families residing there. I found it interesting when our tour guide spoke about the differences between tenements and how some had more advanced conditions. Previously, tenement conditions have always been described as the same, and I was happy to hear that at least some of them had better systems, even if it was for the benefit of the tenement owner and landlord.

The role playing allowed us to imagine how it felt to recently arrive in America and be thrust into the heterogeneity of a tiny but bustling area filled with people speaking different languages, and shops selling wares that may not have been familiar. I liked the authenticity of the actress portraying Victoria Confino and the room where we carried out our visit to the Tenement Museum especially after it was explained to us that Victoria Confino lived in the tenement that was converted into the museum. I also liked that Victoria Confino’s family continues to remain an integral part of the museum and the reenactment.

From the visit, it is clear that the Tenement Museum cares about preserving the stories of the families that lived in that building and in providing patrons of the museum with a concise and differing view of how the people of the tenements lived.

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Reflections on the Tenement Museum

After a near 48-hour sleepless stretch in the architecture studios, my visit to the tenement museum was especially convincing. The descriptions the actress playing Victoria Confino gave of how we would have felt after the voyage across the Atlantic all sounded pretty accurate: a little sick, unsteady, and “falling over of sleep.” My headache was a convincing reason for me to stay quiet while we were in the Confino’s apartment, which I imagine could have been an accurate reaction for a child brought to a strange land and then immediately brought to a stranger’s house to be “introduced” to America.

When I was told we would be visiting the tenement museum, I didn’t quite know what to expect, but I certainly didn’t expect it to be as exhausting as it was. After sitting through a slow introduction to the Lower East Side in the early 1900s, we were crowded into a small apartment to talk to an actress playing the part of Victoria Confino. Her presentation seemed very childish in delivery, which I attributed to the fact that she was playing a young teen, but further research into the matter showed that the tour that we were given was the museum’s program aimed at families with young children, especially those between the ages of five and eight years old. The tenement museum was appealing because of the way it was maintained – it was cold and cramped, just as it would have been a century ago, and many of the artifacts within it, such as the coal stove and other household objects, were a fascinating source of information. However, I felt that I would have been more engaged if the tour had been slightly more age appropriate.

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On Visiting the Tennement Museum

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.

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Tenement Museum Experience-Sundus

I really did not know what to expect from the tenement museum. I figured it would be like any other museum I had ever visited filled with the mementos and keepsakes of those long gone. I never imagined it would be such an interactive experience. It was definitely fun getting into our respective roles. Although at first some of us were hesitant, I could tell we all got really into the situation later on. The actress that played Victoria was amazing (Oscar-worthy). Due to her behavior, I almost felt like I really did just get to the United States, did not speak the language, and had absolutely no idea what to do. There was a second of panic before I realized how ridiculous I was being. Of course we were in 2011 and I did speak English.

In our last assignment we had written about the immigration history of our families. Being an immigrant myself, I realized that my troubles did pale in comparison to those of Victoria’s family. I guess with the advent of technology and greater civilization, our lives have actually been made easier. I was so glad that I was getting an education rather than having to stay in a small apartment all day doing chores for the entire family.

I really enjoyed the overall experience. I was hoping to visit more apartments to see how different families incorporated their respective cultures in their individual rooms. Still, it was nice to see an old tenement apartment, frozen in time. Although it was an enlightening and informative experience, I do not think I’ll go back since there really isn’t much else to see in the building itself besides the apartment we already visited. I would definitely recommend the experience to family and friends however.

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