Located on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, the Tenement Museum was established in 1988 in what was once one of the many crowded buildings that housed thousands of Jewish, German, and Irish immigrant families in the early 20th century. Peter Van Buren, who began working there as a docent in 2016, recalls what he liked about the position:
Inside a restored 19th-century tenement apartment house, [the museum] told the story of some of the actual all-immigrant families who had lived there, from inside their actual apartments. Of the over-7,000 people who inhabited that building over its lifespan, researchers established who had lived in which rooms, detailed their lives, forensically reconstructed the surroundings, and shared it with guests. Some rooms had twenty layers of wallpaper applied by the different generations who had lived there.
Rule one for educators like me was “keep it in the room,” meaning focus on specific individuals and how they lived in the room where you were standing. Over the years, these included Irish, Jewish, German, and Italian immigrants. There had been no Bangladeshis, Spaniards, or blacks; their stories lay elsewhere, “outside the room.” It is the same reason there is no monument to those who died on D-Day at Gettysburg. That didn’t happen there. That story is told somewhere else.
But after the presidential election, the museum reconceived its mission as one of “fighting fascism and destroying the patriarchy.” And everything changed:
I witnessed an Asian museum educator say out loud without any concern from management, “No more Jews, I want to tell my story!” Her parents were university professors from Asia and she was born in a tony New York City suburb, so I’m not quite sure what her story was. But no matter. Narratives were rewritten—so, for example, the Irish immigrants went from suffering anti-Catholic discrimination in Protestant New York to being murderers of innocent blacks during the 1863 Draft Riots. Never mind that the Irish family spotlighted by the museum lived there in 1869 and had no connection to the riots.