Museums, Oral History and Social Change: Hearing Voices on the Lower East Side
This post was written by Ellen Brooks, the Education Intern for the Tenement Museum this summer. Among other things, Ellen helped to interview LES residents for the new walking tour “Storefront Stories,” launching soon!
Let me be one of the first people ever to suggest that hearing multiple voices in your head is a good thing. In fact, sharing these voices with visitors is part of the mission of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, where I have had the profound pleasure of interning this summer.
The most valuable thing I’m taking away from my time here is not something new that I’ve learned, but a reinforcement (and re-invigoration) of my conviction that public history has a responsibility to present multiple perspectives. Toward that end, I’ve spent this summer collecting oral histories for the Museum’s educational programming. Many of these stories will play a role in “Storefront Stories”, a new walking tour launching this fall.
During the course of my work I interviewed several local business owners, including the owner of an art gallery that opened on Orchard Street in 2011 and the owner of a hosiery store who was in the process of being forced out due to rising rent. These two subjects create an archetypal example of who is moving into the LES storefronts (today there are over 100 art galleries here, and more coming) and who is moving out (from the 1970s until very recently the LES was the place to go to buy underwear). In each of my interviews we discussed how the neighborhood has grown and changed, and what the future may hold.
Shopping on Orchard Street in 1926
Pulling multiple voices into one coherent narrative is where the real challenge lies. We can only curate these perspectives so much; there comes a point at which we museum professionals have to let go and trust our audience. To take “Storefront Stories” as an example, it would be very easy to paint a picture of a romantic past of pushcarts and family businesses now being trampled by trendy boutiques. And that is a part of the narrative. But if the Museum stopped there, visitors would never get to meet Claire Fleury, owner of Strange Loop gallery. Claire’s work and perspective are valuable additions to the story of Orchard Street.
Oral histories and personal stories offer museum visitors the unexpected while transferring some of the storytelling authority from the museum to the individual. So while we may ask how Claire’s story interacts with that of the hosiery business owner leaving the neighborhood, the Museum doesn’t have to resolve this conundrum. Instead of saying, “art galleries are changing everything” or “maybe the influx of art galleries on the LES isn’t all bad,” Museum educators can introduce visitors to Claire and to the merchant of yesterday and let them decide for themselves what they think about the changing scene here on Orchard Street.
Navigating the pitfalls and rewards of offering multiple perspectives isn’t easy, but it’s imperative that museums rise to this challenge in order to be agents of social change. Of course, this isn’t a priority for all museums, and the argument can be made that it shouldn’t be. However, the Tenement Museum, and many similar institutions, embraces this role. In my opinion, the core objective of a museum should be connecting people to the past, connecting the past to today and connecting today to the future.