Remnantology

Dedicated to the examination of the remnants. Phil Levy's words in reference to history, archaeology, Judaism, academe, music, outdoorsing…

COVID-19 and the Tenement Museum.

ROY Blog PhotoAlissa Roy is an undergraduate student majoring in history at USF Tampa with an interest in environmental history, memory, and ancient Egypt.

Blurring the Lines Between “Us” and “Them”

As an immigration museum, theLower East Side Tenement Museums’ purpose of providing meaningful discussions surrounding both historical and contemporary immigration and migration through exhibits, tours of homes and their surrounding neighborhoods, panel discussions, and their Your Story Our Story national project, was not catalyzed by covid-19. However, their mission eludes to a valuable connection to these rich histories, at a time where citizens across the world are rapidly migrating across state lines and countries by the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, in an effort to reunite with family or to simply find safety. The Tenement Museums’ website reads, “HELP THE TENEMENT MUSEUM SURVIVE.”[1] While survival has become precarious for individuals and businesses alike, perhaps the silver lining to this situation is that it offers a chance for introspection within the U.S., toward what people have and continue to endure for the protection or betterment of themselves, their families, and safety. “While it may at times be easy to see the gaps between “us” and “them,” a closer look reveals how these newest citizens demonstrate the human spirit of our nation’s ideals.”[2]

Perusing the Tenement Museums’ website, it is quite palpable that the Your Story Our Story national project holds infinite meaning that is only magnified during the covid-19 pandemic. This curated online collection displays objects and stories submitted by groups, organizations, immigrants, and their families, “uncover[ing] patterns and differences of our experiences across the country.”[3] Currently, they are astutely highlighting individuals’ stories of “community resilience, health, medicine, and comfort.”[4] One can read about Lillian Chan, whose grandmother emigrated from China, in 1996.[5] When Lillian was not feeling well, her grandmother would apply tiger balm, a traditional Chinese salve that helped her to feel better.[6] It’s scent reminds her of her still.[7] Or perhaps about the medicine bottle found on the floor of the “Levine Apartment,” distributed by the Eastern & Good Samaritan Dispensary. “Dispensaries were municipally funded, medical walk-in facilities offering free or low-cost care to the poor.”[8] The aforementioned stories resonate during a time when we are quickly becoming intimate with the precarious nature of health and wellness during times of pandemic, and can even offer insight towards how to help our communities, perhaps with reduced costs to individuals who suffer from covid-19 – as did the historical dispensaries before us.

Irish immigrants throughout most of the 19th century, made up the bulk of those living in the tenement houses on the lower east side.[9] An gorta mór, or the Great Famine, was caused by a fungal disease phytophthora infestans, leaving 2.1 million Irish to flee the country – many of whom immigrated to America to avoid starving to death.[10] The Tenement Museum deals intimately with the history of these peoples and other immigrants who came to America for numerous reasons, not the least of which included survival. The Tenement Museum clearly hopes to thread this palpable connection by highlighting stories that hold significant meaning in contemporary society. The Tenement Museum has released member-only content to the public for digital viewing, provided remote learning activities such as reading or writing activities including oral histories, photographs, and videos, and allow you to virtually tour the museum content and more.[11] In order to survive it is essential for museums and other businesses to adapt – or risk closing their doors forever.[12] And perhaps, rather than isolating their message as a thing of the past, we need to fully recognize the value the immigrant experience brings to contemporary society. While we all attempt to remain safe and to protect those we love from covid-19 – whether that means fleeing New York for Florida, or wherever else, the lines between “us” and “them” might blur, so as to make one indistinguishable from the other. Isn’t it about time?

[1] The Tenement Museum, 2020, accessed April 3, 2020, https://www.tenement.org/

[2] The Tenement Museum, 2020, accessed April 3, 2020, https://www.tenement.org/

[3] The Tenement Museum, 2020, accessed April 3, 2020, https://www.tenement.org/

[4] The Tenement Museum, 2020, accessed April 3, 2020, https://www.tenement.org/

[5] The Tenement Museum, 2020, accessed April 3, 2020, https://www.tenement.org/

[6] The Tenement Museum, 2020, accessed April 3, 2020, https://www.tenement.org/

[7] The Tenement Museum, 2020, accessed April 3, 2020, https://www.tenement.org/

[8] The Tenement Museum, 2020, accessed April 3, 2020, https://www.tenement.org/

[9] Kenny, Kevin. The American Irish: A History. (Great Britain: Pearson Education Limited, 2000).

[10] Kenny, Kevin. The American Irish: A History. (Great Britain: Pearson Education Limited, 2000).

[11] The Tenement Museum, 2020, accessed April 3, 2020, https://www.tenement.org/

[12] Vagnone, Franklin and Ryan, Deborah. Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums. (Walnut Creek: Left Coast Press Incorporated, 2016).

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