Cabinets of Wonder: Tenement Museum

Prior to visiting the Tenement Museum, I expected that it would make me think about my grandparents’ immigration from Ireland to the United States and imagine what it was like for them. It did, but unexpectedly only after I left the place – because while in the museum, we were busy imagining ourselves in the situation in which they put us.

Fourteen-year-old Victoria Confino welcomed the Cabinets of Wonder class (playing the role of a Russian Jewish family of twelve, who had just disembarked the ship after a 3-week journey across the Atlantic) into her apartment. The more questions we asked, the more we learned about Victoria. It was an effective way to learn. All tours are guided, so we couldn’t wander around by ourselves – but we were encouraged to let our minds wander within the context. It helped us to learn through imagination – through putting ourselves in someone else’s place. That Victoria was a professional actress, rather than a museum guide or curator, made the tour all the more interesting.

It was fun getting into the character of a 9-year-old Russian who had just disembarked from a transatlantic voyage in steerage. It was challenging not to giggle at first while in character. As time went on, we played around a bit more – my 10-year-old sister Patricia asked for a doctor to look at my right foot, which I’d injured on the boat, which in turn got Victoria telling us about how we’d need to fix our own medical problems while living in the tenement.

The Tenement Museum felt nothing like the museums we’ve been to, because it put us in the position of real people who lived at 97 Orchard Street almost a hundred years ago, as opposed to people who are viewing objects in a museum. It brought us closer to the past, putting nothing between history and ourselves – unlike many other places we’ve seen, where we can’t touch most things or have to settle for observing things through windows.

Through the kinds of questions we asked, we were reminded us that people in those days were like us – just ordinary people. Also, this museum made me want to go back – we just saw one story yesterday, but there are more stories in there.

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