Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Inside 103 Orchard: Students Experiment with Creative Re-use

At our new Visitor and Education Center, 2nd and 3rd grade students visiting the Tenement Museum for our Meet the Residents program can tap into their own ingenuity to make something from nothing. During a new activity called Creative Re-use, students are inspired by the resourcefulness of the immigrants who lived in 97 Orchard Street. A puppet made from a sock, a rug made from rags and even a scooter made from a crate and some wood scraps serve as examples of the ways former residents creatively reused what they had to make the things they needed. 

Doll in a stylish striped poncho

As the students sit comfortably in our bright, brand-new classrooms, they have the opportunity to creatively r-euse discarded materials and transform them into masterpieces. Using items from the recycling bins at the Museum and donations from Materials for the Arts, New York City’s ultimate reuse center, along with lots of imagination, students have been busy making toys and games.

As they work, students consider how they can creatively reuse the things around them. Recycling bins become treasure troves, scraps become dolls, puppets, airplanes, and even angry birds and Pokémon characters.
A see-through polka-dot airplane

It’s been quite amazing to see the students’ resourcefulness and even more remarkable to watch them curiously look around with wonder at the possibility of making something from nothing.

--Posted by Miriam Bader, Director of Education

Monday, November 21, 2011

Out Harvey Wang's Window

The Tenement Museum differs from most museums in that our collection is displayed in  re-created apartments, rather than galleries. While we've presented temporary visual art exhibits in our storefront windows (and even in the apartments at 97 Orchard Street, back in our early days), the Museum hasn't had a purpose-build gallery space until this fall. This gives us an exciting new opportunity to present new perspectives on immigration, New York City history, architecture and other themes.

We're inaugurating our new exhibition space within the Visitor Center at 103 Orchard Street with "Out Harvey Wang's Window", an exhibition of Lower East Side photographs by Harvey Wang. Below, Tenement staffer Alana Rosen reflects on Harvey's work and our unusual curatorial process.

Harvey Wang, Mr. Wong's Kitchen, 1980

Harvey Wang, a New York photographer and filmmaker, took photographs of the Lower East Side for many years. In our exhibit, we focus on the black and white pictures he took in the 1970's and 80's.  The images feature storefronts and local businesses, activities unfolding in the streets, and portraits of Lower East Side residents.  The pictures aptly represent the diversity, energy, and uniqueness of the LES during that time.  Although the neighborhood has vastly changed over the past 30 years, there is still a deep sense of history, culture, and vigor. 

Harvey Wang, Essex Street, 1979

After I saw the photographs and learned that the staff was developing a gallery guide for the exhibit, I knew I wanted to be part of the project. The exhibit was developed in a very democratic way--staff members from every department voted to decide which photographs would be included. We also answered questions about our reactions to the photos and how we felt they related to the Museum and its mission. These short texts are included in the Gallery Guide we've created for visitors. It was fascinating to hear what my co-workers had to say. I love piecing together the history of those who lived and worked in the Lower East Side, and becoming part of the neighborhood's history myself.

Harvey Wang, Cleveland Place, 1980

Friday, November 18, 2011

Occupy Wall Street's Historic Precedent

Standing in the lamp-lit nineteenth century apartments of 97 Orchard Street, it's easy to see big differences between the past and the present. But frequently, current events echo the histories we explore here at the Tenement Museum. For example, Occupy Wall Street's recent eviction from Zuccotti Park  is particularly reminiscent of a moment in history we explore in our "Hard Times" tour (until recently, it was known as "Getting By").

As its name suggests, "Hard Times" focuses on times of economic hardship for Americans. During this tour visitors learn about the struggles of  the Gumpertz family, who lived through a national economic calamity known as the Panic of 1873 and its aftermath. During these years, German immigrant shoe-maker Julius Gumpertz and his wife faced tremendous economic and emotional stress--and they were in good company: 25% of New Yorkers were out of work at the time.

Seeking an avenue to express their frustration, and demanding that the government address the problem of unemployment, thousands of workers, many of them German immigrants, gathered in and around Tompkins Square Park on January 13, 1874.

Protesters in Tompkins Square Park, 1874
In an article with the same date, the New York Times reported that, though the "Police Commission wisely refused permission to the Communists to parade yesterday...by 10 o'clock Tompkins Square and vicinity were occupied by 3,000 persons of the lowest class, most of whom, however, were probably there out of idle curiosity". (1)

Despite the article's dismissive tone, the event made history. Police and protesters clashed, and in the ensuing fray, many were injured and arrested. This sparked a public dialogue about police brutality, free speech, and the right to public assembly, sowing the seeds of the American labor movement.

The subsequent clash with police; Image Courtesy the Library of Congress

Two weeks later the Times quoted Mrs. Charles Lilienthal, who had been an eye-witness to the riot and was "horrified" by the events. Speaking at a community meeting about the January 13 events, Lilienthal contradicted the characterization of the Times' prior article, asking "What citizens were those that wanted to meet in Tompkins Square?...they were a portion of positively our best class of citizens. They were the true tax-payers. They were working men!"(2)

Later in the meeting, according to the article, the group made a series of resolutions denouncing the behavior of the police and asserting their right to peaceful assembly.

As the future of the Occupy Wall Street movement is determined this week, history is both being made and repeated here in New York City.

To read more on this topic, check out the Gotham Center's article, "Before 'Occupy Wall Street': Notes on prior New York City protests against economic crises".


 1. The New York Times, "Defeat of the Communists: Mass Meeting and Parade Broken Up", January 14 1874
 2. The New York Times, "Mass Meeting at Cooper Institute", January 31 1874

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Doors Are Open at 103 Orchard Street!

Today's the big day! We've opened the doors and welcomed the first members of the public to our new Visitor and Education Center at the corner of Orchard and Delancey. The Center gives us 10,000 square feet of additional space, including classrooms, a screening room and our first purpose-built gallery space.

Tenement Staffers Katie Barnard and Rachael Grygorcewicz unlocked the door at 10 a.m., making it official. 

11/11/11 has been appropriately lucky for the Tenement Museum so far, as we've had a smooth transition to 103 Orchard Street.

We think it's a very good sign that everyone felt right at home immediately. Visitors enjoyed leisurely browsing our expanded bookshop, as well as the new gallery space featuring the exhibit "Out Harvey Wang's Window".

Out with the chalkboard, in with technology! Our new ticketing screens show up-to-date tour information and are easier to read, making the check-in process much clearer.

Jennifer Flowers and John Matchett were among the first to pick up tickets at 103 Orchard this morning. Jennifer is a frequent Tenement visitor who loves history. She says the Museum gives a "perfect flavor of New York", so with John in town from Virginia she suggested a visit. He said he'd read about the Museum and it "didn't take much convicing!"

Thanks so much to everyone on staff and of course our wonderful visitors, members and supporters for helping make this beautiful new home a reality. We hope you'll visit us soon!