Tenement Museum

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The Tenement Museum tour we chose (of the five available) sure sounded inviting:

Shop Life. Set in the 1870s, Lower East Side, Manhattan.

“View the restored apartments of past residents from different time periods. Family-run stores filled the lower level of 97 Orchard for over a century, where they struggled to adapt to an ever-changing neighborhood and achieve the American Dream. Visit German saloon of John and Caroline Schneider…”

The reality was different. A dozen of us sat in the Schneiders’ recreated barroom. The guide then proceeded to conduct a brief, history-free, fact-free, context-free talk. That was tolerable, if completely hollow. What was intolerable, and completely unbelievable, was what came next. She passed out cards, one to each of us, with names and information about fictional characters who might have been drinking beer in the saloon in the 1870s. She then asked us to assume the persona of the people on the cards and carry on conversations with each other — Hi, I’m William from Prussia. Hi, I’m Lina from Baden. I’m…

It was third-grade redux. I’m not kidding. At least she didn’t ask us to clap our hands and stamp our feet. That was it for us.

And yet, a Times review three years ago lauded the museum. Today, at Trip Advisor, Tenement Museum 5-star comments (Excellent) outnumber 1-star (Terrible) by an 80-to-1 margin.

Maybe it’s us.

Ben Rosen

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2 Responses to “Tenement Museum”

  1. I think it was the tour you took, Ben. We visited last summer and got what I thought was the standard tour, where you walk through the tenement, and stop in 4-5 different apartments decorated for a specific period, and with the stories of the actual families that lived there. No role playing involved.

    The guide was knowledgeable (as in, quite well versed on the property), the tour moved along at a good pace, and we felt like we had a better feel for the evolution of housing in NYC during the 19th and early 20th century. I was particularly interested in the history of the building itself: apparently the upper floors were abandoned in the early 30s when the cost to renovate the building to meet new codes was uneconomic. So, it continued as a shopfront with the upper floors in a time freeze.

  2. Jim, glad to hear that. I should have realized that we had an incompetent tour guide.

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