History We Can Use

Article excerpt


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 . …