I recently traveled to New York City, and I finally visited the Tenement Museum while there. This museum has been on my list to see for several years, especially since the National Public Housing Museum wants to follow a similar model of recreating apartments once their space is fully renovated. I opted to go on two of their tours, and I’m glad I did.
The living spaces above the ground-floor businesses originally shuttered due to code updates the landlord could not and did not want to fulfill. This means that the majority of the building was a time-capsule, abandoned for decades. This also means that basic updates had to be completed to open the space for tours, and there are still restrictions on how visitors see the space. There is no free roaming, and tours are limited to an hour. While I understand the practical limitations to the space, I still found myself frustrated by this highly-controlled experience. I like to take my time and absorb at my own rate.
Information was also repeated from one tour to another, particularly in the entry hallway, perhaps with the assumption that visitors usually only opt to take one tour at a time. This normally would not bother me, but with limited time, it felt like lost time.
On the whole, I did thoroughly enjoy my experience at the museum, though. I appreciate the fact that they retained the majority of surfaces as they found them when the building was first reopened. “Abandoned” apartments are showcased on each floor, so that visitors can get a sense of the scale of these rooms and the urban archaeology involved in a space like this one. In some rooms, they have uncovered over 40 layers of paint, and looking down revealed decades of changing flooring, from wood to linoleum.
The recreated apartments were also effective. Each was meant to replicate the experience of specific families that lived in the building. The objects in these spaces were collected from thrift stores, estate sales, flea markets and many other venues not usually used to fill a museum spaces. As such, they aren’t traditional collections materials, that individually tell a story. It is only collectively that they recreate the stories of the families who lived and the times in which they lived. It did feel a bit like stepping back in time, and it was done tastefully.
I had a great deal of questions after visiting - what their conservation efforts looked like while making the space visitable, what current conservation challenges they face with the space, how collections materials (from what I gathered, primarily objects recovered on the site) are handled and tracked differently than apartment objects, etc etc. I hope to be able to ask these questions to staff one day, and I also hope to be able to return once their new apartments open this summer. These feature more contemporary families, which will more closely align in time period with families NPHM will likely feature.