My Favourite History Place: The Tenement Museum, New York

Historian feature

By Rebecca Sullivan, published 17th May 2023

The Tenement Museum, New York

The Tenement Museum is not remotely like any museum I had previously visited. It is an old tenement building where generations of New York migrants lived and loved, worked and had families before moving both on and out. The Tenement Museum tells the story of the Lower East Side through the personal narratives of those who lived in its many apartments. Unlike most museums and galleries, all visits to the Tenement Museum are guided tours.

The museum’s foundation tells a remarkable story in its own right. When a couple of New York historians and activists, Ruth Abram and Anita Jacobson, encountered the original tenement building on 97 Orchard Street in 1988, it had been boarded up for around 50 years. Inside the shuttered and decaying building, they found abandoned and neglected evidence of the people who had lived there between the 1860s and 1930s. Later, they also acquired 103 Orchard Street which had been occupied until much more recently. The lives of these individuals and their apartments have been beautifully and evocatively recreated. The ornaments and personal knick-knacks; books; magazines; toiletries and clothes bring these families to life along with their furniture – right down to the radios and, in one apartment, the plastic sheeting to protect the couch...

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