The Tenement Museum – Visit the Families, Skip the Shop Tour

tenementMusI love the Tenement Museum. They have done a superb job in restoring this tenement building on the Lower East Side and I applaud the research that was done and that they continue to do. All of this makes the stories of the families who lived in this five-story brick tenement, home to an estimated 7,000 people, from over 20 nations, between 1863 and 1935, come alive.

The docents are well-educated and their knowledge of the building and its inhabitants is superb. I have taken most of the tours, many more than once. I always leave having learned something new and with renewed respect for all the immigrants that began their lives in this neighborhood as well as elsewhere in NYC. When you step into the building you usually feel as if stepped into a time machine.

This is why I found their newest tour, Shop Life, such a disappointment. The upper part of the building was residential, but the street level space was always commercial. The first shop that opened at 97 Orchard Street was a 1870s beer saloon. This was followed by a kosher butcher at the turn of the century. During the depression it housed auction house and in the 1970s the space was rented to an underwear discounter.

You begin by stepping into a recreation of the beer saloon and its owner’s living quarters. It felt wrong. It felt new and contrived, complete with the plastic food. The docent gave a decent overview but then handed out cards with various biographies and had us play act roles she chose for us. What a waste of time! From here we were taken into the living quarters for a quick overview of what their life might have been like at end of the 19th century. Then it was off to an interactive classroom.

The classroom has smart boards and an interactive counter and on the back wall there are bookshelves with objects. We were told to choose one object which gave us access to an audio-visual presentation for just ONE of the business tenants– the butcher, the auctioneer, or the underwear business. Individually, we listened to an audio/visual presentation. Then the docent recapped what we heard about the three businesses and showed yet another film. The final film is about a business currently located down the street that was started by immigrants from Yemen. Don’t get me wrong, if I could buy coffee daily from the guys who own the Happiness Deli I would, but I don’t see the connection to the Tenement Museum. It felt more like an advertisement.

The Tenement Museum is a great museum and I will continue to recommend that people visit and I will continue to support their efforts with my membership. Tours are between 60-90 minutes and there’s a very good 30 minute movie in the Visitor’s Center that you should absolutely watch before going on any tour. My only advice, skip the Shop Life tour. (Star rating reflects this tour).


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