I combined the assignment to go outside from the previous week and did two tours – the first was Hard Times and the second was the Foods of the Lower East Side. I had looked at the website first to get an idea of what the tours were like. Unfortunately I was time constrained so that drove the decision making, but the website was actually very handy – you can buy tours by looking at the calendar and seeing the times there. It feels very modern and clean, which amazed me because by comparison AMNH’s site is much more chaotic and that’s a much bigger institution. It did take me two clicks to find the hours of the museum though, but the website set the bar a little higher for my expectations.
I got there a bit early and was able to spend time inside the gift shop – I was able to observe people purchase tickets and pick up reservations for their tours. There are two large screens behind the shop counter that display the tours for the day, and when a tour was about to start the person at the counter would make the announcement and identify the educator that was in charge. The tour groups are pretty small themselves; my group was about ten or so people. It made more sense why they keep the tours small as it went on – the educator was basically all the captions you ever get in a museum and then some. She narrated the entire tour from start to finish, and there were only maybe one or two things that she passed around for us to physically touch and handle. The rest of the time we had a ‘no touch’ policy and had to rely on the educator for learning about what we were looking it. It was definitely an immersive experience doing it this way; while I felt a little disarmed by not having captions to read and take in on my own time, I think that having the tours created an experience that allowed me to really feel like I was living a moment in history rather than experiencing it through multiple glass walls in a sterile environment.
Funnily enough, I had the same educator for the Foods of LES tour. This tour followed a similar format to the first one in that we walked from place to place before stopping and letting the educator talk about the scene we were looking at, though this one came with samples of delicious food. Both this tour and the Hard Times tour had similar audiences – there were some people who were from New York and some who were here from other countries, but all had come here on a recommendation from someone they knew.
It turned out that the educator had designed the Foods of LES tour, so I had a great conversation with her about how the tours are developed – she had done the background research and started to develop this tour when she was interning at the Tenement Museum. She talked about building the relationships with the businesses in the area to tie into the research she had done and how each tour is a unique experience because the educators are the one that have the most impact on what the tour is like. New educators learn from going on tours themselves and learning from other educators, so her style of running the tours was influenced by them.
I really enjoyed the experience I had at the Tenement Museum – it is the most unique museum experience I’ve had so far because I didn’t have to concentrate on things like navigation, caption reading, and subject engagement. These were handled by someone else, so I was able to focus more on what was around me. I had never spent time in the Lower East Side before then so it was a great way to understand how far the neighborhood and New York City itself has come from the time that immigrants were settling into their first homes in America. I had some concerns about how much I would actually learn without having something to read in front of me, but I found that having an educator there made the history more personal and had a longer lasting impact.