Beatrice- LES Museum and readings
My tour at the Lower East Side Museum consisted of a combo of the Confino Family tour (where I met Victoria,) and the “Piecing It Together” tour, focused around sweatshops and the garment industry. As the tour started, our educator encouraged members of the group to share any personal history related to Lower East Side tenement housing. She quickly linked the couple of stories that came up with the larger immigrant experience of some of the Tenement’s inhabitants.
This first step really framed the tour for me: it seems to that the Tenement museum, to some extent, is part of what Prof. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett describes as a competition amongst other sites “for the status of definitive master narrative.” (Destination Culture 200) On one hand, the tour and the educators I met took great pain in describing the specific family whose background was being recreated in the different apartments. Yet these families, however specific in their history, also worked as ghostly stand-ins for the larger immigrant population in the Tenement and in the neighborhood. It was not surprising, therefore, to discover in the Educator’s Introduction, that the LES Museum has been twinned with the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. Yet the museum’s focus on the domestic aspect of the immigrant life, marks the Tenement Museum’s difference from the other two sites. It is a private space become public: as an audience we are given the voyeuristic pleasure of entering a space that would have been forbidden (and probably not desirable to visit) at the time in which the historic clock of the museum is stopped. Would similar tour be created for the house of a contemporary Chinese immigrant in China Town? Would it be politically desirable? It seems like the Tenement Museum’s temporal situatedness informs it with the excitement of a past not so far gone (so as to attract immediate descendants of the immigrants who experienced tenement housing), yet far enough that it can be made into a narrative supported by the government (and not as politically threatening as dealing directly with present day immigration).
One of the attractions of the Tenement Museum is the way it romanticizes the past of the immigrants. Similarly to Colonial Williamsburg, in order for the tourists to support and come to the Tenement Museum, the conditions for visiting the space are sanitized. So we walk into the Levine’s apartment where we are made to imagine that Mrs. Levine is about to give birth, yet the apartment is quiet and there is plenty of room around for the visitors to stand and get a glimpse of the Levine’s home. Framing “Piecing It Together,” between the birth and the death of immigrants in different families increased the sense of the epic in my experience of the tour: while it is true that the educator’s story-telling focused on the difficulties and horrors of the garment industry both today and at the time of the Tenement inhabitants, the stories of the families became romantic tales about the immigrant experience, with birth and death as two events which are universal to all.
The Tenement Museum also creates a space where the mediation by the museum workers on the objects in the rooms, makes it appear as though the objects themselves were somewhat desirous to speak to you: placed neatly around the rooms so as to be visible, yet not clearly on display. In a domestic setting, the exhibition of these objects is intimately connected to their users, the inhabitants of the apartment, and the educator’s portrayal of the stories of the families made it feel as thought the inhabitants, just like the objects, could not wait to be put on display. This became problematic to me when, after the tour, an elderly woman in my group told me how difficult it is for her to get stories about the Lower East Side from her mother. “You know for her, it’s like nothing,” she told me. The woman’s story made me think about the intimacy of the families portrayed in the museum and the way their stories have been framed for political ends (i.e. supporting the museum’s interpretation of history.)
In fact, the question of intimacy and display is one that I missed in the ethnography on Colonial Williamsburg, where the private spaces where made visible as much as the public spaces. In their ethnography, New History in an Old Museum, Richard Handler and Eric Gable outline the focus of their work in the first chapter. The questions they are asking revolve around three main issues: cultural representation, the ideologies that underpin or are reinforced by those representations, and the role of the audience in the experience of Colonial Williamsburg. (Handler and Gable p 8-9) I found these three concerns, and the political questions that they brought up, to be a great starting point on their analysis. New History in an Old Museum brought up many issues which related to my experience of the Tenement Museum, particularly as I became more aware to the extent to which a museum has to imagine its audience and mediate between attraction and education of the public.
In the light of New History in an Old Museum I thought again about my encounter with “Victoria Confino” at the LES Museum: how is Victoria’s performance framed for the visitors? And how are we, the visitors, expected to relate to Victoria? Differently from the Plymouth virtual exchange between visitors and pilgrims described by Prof. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, when visiting Victoria our group was placed in a specific role (a just-off-the-boat family) and made to pretend we were in her same time. As a result, we were prompted to ask her the questions we imagined immigrants would have. In my experience, this framing limited the range of questions we could pose to Victoria. For instance: we were an Italian family from the early 20th century, so how could I ask Victoria about her sex life? On one hand, it felt as though we were really meeting Victoria Confino, yet the frame through which this was happening was very structured and defined how we would perceive her historical character.
Overall, reading New History in an Old Museum made me very aware of the importance of a continued study of a specific site, one in which many occasions of communication open the possibility for spontaneity and slippages in the conversations with participants of the museum. The tours themselves, especially if experienced only once, have all the energy of something that is novel. The novelty of the experience can easily distract one from making more detailed observations about the subtler dynamics of the museum and, particularly, about what decisions happen behind the scenes (in that back space defined by MacCannell.)