Museums like The Met and the MoMa have helped NYC become an undisputed leader in the arts. And if you live in or have visited NYC, chances are you’ve seen these museums numerous times with your family. You get it. The paintings are beautiful but your feet probably hurt like hell and if you see your mom swoon over another Picasso, you’re hailing a cab back downtown. This week, I searched for museum life beyond the tried-and-true staples. In this economic downturn, I wanted to see how the smaller museums were faring. I said farewell to the Whitney and hello to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum!
Founded in 1988, The Lower East Side Tenement Museum was created in an effort to educate people about the history of immigration life in the tenement buildings. “(The) idea was that historic sites could be used to address contemporary issues, especially controversial or difficult ones. (We) wanted to use the history of America’s immigration to promote understanding of the experiences of immigrants today.”, Public Relations manager, Kate Stober, wrote in an e-mail. After purchasing a dilapidated building on Orchard street, founders Ruth Abram and Anita Jacobson researched the history of the tenants that had lived there and began reconstruction on the apartments. By staying true to the original style of the apartments, the museum could recreate the stories and lives of the immigrant families that had resided there.
The museum offers three tours that each tell a different story about life in the tenements. Being of Irish descent, I opted for the tour, “The Moores: An Irish Family in America.” During the hour-long tour, I explored the old Moores’ family apartment and saw their cramped living quarters and learned of their struggles. Since cameras weren’t allowed, all of the following pictures are from the museum’s Flickr.
The Moores were just one of the many families that emigrated to America following the potato famine in Ireland. After moving to the Lower East Side, the family was faced with xenophobic attitudes and struggled to find work. With no access to fresh milk/food and health care, their young daughter eventually became a casualty of the high infant mortality rate.
After the tour ended, I dried my tears and looked around. The experience at the LES Tenement Museum was in stark contrast to the stuffy untouchable vibe of the Met or the Whitney. It was small and it was personal. Naturally, I wondered who the hell was paying for all of it. “Most of the money comes from grants, sponsors and membership. Right now, we have about 1200 members and that brings in a significant portion of the money.”, Kate Stober explained via e-mail. 1200 members may seem like a lot but compared to the 120,000 members at MoMa or the 129,000 at the Whitney, it’s very little. Remarkably, some museums have even less than that. The Food Museum of New York, for example, doesn’t even have an actual location. “We’re funded on a project-to-project basis. I don’t want to pay rent. Foundation money shouldn’t be used for rent.”, Director of the NY Food Museum, Nancy Ralph, said over the phone. The NY Food Museum runs about two to three exhibitions a year and survives mostly on grants and sponsorship from Whole Foods and NYU. Financial instability, however, doesn’t deter the museum. “It’s so much a volunteer effort. If we wanna do something, we do it. If not, we don’t.”, Ralph continued.
In the world of small museums, things are run a bit differently. Museums like the NY Food Museum and LES Tenement Museum may not have the necessary clout to become big and prosperous. But thanks to tenacity and passion, their stories continue to be told.