Balancing Memory and Material at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum

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Gabrielle A. Berlinger


Abstract: Founded in a nationally landmarked apartment building on the ever-gentrifying Lower East Side of Manhattan, New York, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum is an historic site of immigrant social history and material culture. Constructed in 1864 and occupied by over 7,000 immigrants until its closing in 1935, this building has withstood constantly rising visitorship each year since its opening as a museum in 1988. With apartment spaces restored for the public to explore without roped-off restriction, this time capsule of domestic immigrant life requires continual maintenance to preserve its historic physical fabric. Through interviews with the Museum staff and the Preservation Advisory Committee (conservators, architectural historians, curators), as well as documentation of technical processes carried out in the preservation process, this ethnographic study investigates the questions and compromises that arise in the preservation of the tangible and intangible heritage contained within an historic structure in constant use. Which narratives are reconstructed through the Museum’s decisions to restore certain material features of the building while allowing others to decay? What are best practices for interpretation and preservation when a museum’s success results in the gradual destruction of its main artifact (the building) through use? This study explores the intersection of museum mission and practice, heritage construction, and historic preservation at a site both sustained and destroyed by its increasing success.

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Author Biography

Gabrielle A. Berlinger, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Assistant Professor of American Studies and Folklore and Babette S. and Bernard J. Tanenbaum Fellow in Jewish History and Culture, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill