History We Can Use

The Lower Eastside Tenement Museum in New York City is a founding member of the International Coalition of Historic Sites of Conscience.

Alexander Gourse

The Lower East Side Tenement Museum has restored several apartments to their original tenement conditions.

Standing in the kitchen of a rehabbed Manhattan tenement, a tour guide at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum tells visitors the story of the Baldizzis, a Sicilian-Catholic family who lived in the building from 1928 to 1935. Amid typical anecdotes of self-help in hard times, the guide discusses aspects of the immigrant family’s experience that are usually glossed over in museums. Both parents came illegally to the United States. When Home Relief inspectors visited the apartment, the family would hide belongings that might make them ineligible for public aid. The father, a skilled cabinetmaker, found work through WPA programs until jobs in war industries became available. 

The experiences of the Baldizzis give visitors a chance to think about the long history of current hot topics such as immigration and welfare in the United States. And during the Kitchen Conversation,” a post-tour program initiated by the Tenement Museum in 2004, visitors are encouraged by the museum’s staff to talk about the connections between past and present.

The Tenement Museum was founded by scholar-activist Ruth Abrams in the late 80s. From its inception, Abrams wanted the Tenement Museum to be more than a place of passive reflection. Today, the museum attempts to create a discussion about the past and present not only during tours, but also through programs including ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) classes, after-hours community workshops that address contemporary immigration issues and public art exhibitions featuring works by neighborhood residents. The museum is becoming a neighborhood institution.

Walking a fine line between museum work and social service advocacy, the Tenement Museum felt isolated from the larger museum and public history community for years. That’s why, in 1999, Abrams and Liz Sevcenko, the museum’s vice president of programs, sent out a message in a bottle, asking museums around the world whether they felt their own work had a fundamental social mission.” The eight museums that responded became the founding members of the International Coalition of Historic Sites of Conscience, an organization that, as Sevcenko explains, serves as a kind of a support group for misfit museums.”

To us,” she says, the connections between past and present, between history and civic participation, were absolutely natural. Our goal is to transform historic site museums from places of passive learning to places of active citizen engagement. We seek to use the history of what happened at our sites – whether it was a genocide, a violation of civil rights, or a triumph of democracy – as the foundation for dialogue about how and where these issues are alive today, and about what can be done to address them.”

Since 1999, member museums have shared resources and strategies on how to promote democracy and human rights through historical analysis. At the District Six Museum in Cape Town, South Africa, visitors are presented with street signs and maps from a neighborhood that was gradually demolished after the South African government declared it a whites-only area in 1965. Through its Dialogue for Democracy program, the museum takes children on a tour of the neighborhood’s history and institutions in hopes of helping them to assume the rights and … responsibilities as full and equal citizens in a newly democratic country.” 

At the site of Perm-36, a restored Stalinist labor camp in Russia, the Gulag Museum uses structures from the old prison to discuss issues such as totalitarianism, state terror and the role of dissidents in an open political system. The museum asks its visitors, What institutions or activities are fundamental to a democracy?” and Is it possible that Russia could return to a repressive form of government?” 

Not all of the Coalition museums use tragedy to discuss their topics. Although the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis is located at the site of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, it celebrates the Civil Rights Movement through interactive presentations of sit-ins and the 1963 March on Washington. Exploring the Legacy,” the Civil Rights Museum’s newest exhibit, encourages visitors to think about contemporary issues like gender inequality, poverty and the racial disparity in the U.S. criminal justice system.

But with so much of their energy focused on promoting public dialogue about human rights, democracy and social activism, do Coalition museums forego the traditional role of a history museum? Such institutions risk becoming excessively polemical – and anti-intellectual – in their interpretation of complex historical phenomena, says historian Richard John of the University of Illinois at Chicago. History and social activism in my view are distinct activities,” he says. There is nothing wrong with the latter, but it is often not history.”

Sevcenko has heard such criticisms before. She points out the years of painstaking historical research that have gone into the Tenement Museum – as well as other Coalition sites – as evidence that we’re not so postmodern as to believe there’s no separation” between the roles of educator and activist. Separating historical truth from a sea of differing interpretations while still encouraging open discussion can be a challenging task. However, Sevcenko explains, educators” at the Tenement Museum are specifically trained to encourage an egalitarian dialogue between visitors and museum staff while providing concrete historical reference to the topics being discussed. 

So far, educators at Coalition sites have mediated controversial and emotional discussions with relative success. The Coalition currently includes 17 accredited sites, and four new museums are poised to join them in 2006, including Constitution Hill in Johannesburg, South Africa, the site of the Old Fort prison that once held Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi. 

The Tenement Museum recently won first prize from the American Association of Museums’ Brooking Paper on Creativity in Museums for its Shared Journeys Program. This series of after-hours workshops designed by education director Maggie Russell-Ciardi helps new immigrants compare their experiences to those of earlier waves of immigrants and migrants in the United States.

United by a belief that stimulating dialogue on pressing social issues and promoting humanitarian and democratic values” should be the primary function of historic sites, the member institutions of the Coalition are gradually carving out a niche in the museum world.

Alexander Gourse is a doctoral student in the history department at Northwestern University. Before returning to graduate school, he worked as a paralegal, defending homeowners against predatory mortgage lenders, and did freelance writing for In These Times and other publications.
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