Shop Life preview at the Tenement Museum

Shop Life tour intro, captured 12/26/2012
Sometimes I'm reminded how lucky I am to be friends with some brilliant museum professionals in New York City. Last week, Sarah Litvin, an educator at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, gave me a private, behind-the-scenes overview of the museum's new Shop Life tour on which she had worked diligently for the past few years.

To create Shop Life, the TM staff reconstructed the saloon owned by the German immigrant Schneider family in half of the basement level of the museum's historic tenement building located at 97 Orchard Street. The Schneider family had occupied the space during the 1870s, housing their saloon and a meeting room for social clubs in the front section of the apartment and housing their kitchen and living quarters in the back. The entire space is about the size of a decent 1-bedroom New York City apartment today. Like all of the TM apartments, the Schneider saloon was meticulously researched, populated by representative artifacts acquired at antique shops and built using mostly authentic building materials. Sarah told me about how the museum had worked with a professional "food fabricator" to construct delicious-looking fare including sauer kraut, sausages, and seasonal lebkuchen (a German Christmas Cookie). Caroline Schneider would have served lunch to her customers for free. (Even in the 1870s, it was the liquor that paid for the restaurant).

In addition to offering the TM's traditional immersive experience of the built environment, Shop Life incorporates artifacts in unique ways to tell the story of the evolution of the space over time. The rear end of the southern basement apartment was left close to how it appeared before the renovation/reconstruction, showing exposed brick and wood and an open tiled fireplace. In the middle of the room, an artifact case houses objects excavated from the building's back privies and fireplaces.  Emblematic of saloon life, these artifacts include a piece of a ceramic bier stein and a page from an 1870s German-language newspaper. In the front half of the southern basement apartment, the TM has undertaken a mostly successful experiment with interactive technology. Replicas of significant artifacts, when placed on a screen-covered "shop counter," trigger stories of different immigrant families who had owned businesses in the space during the 19th and 20th centuries. The technology works using RFID tags embedded in the objects and a motion-sensor to capture visitors' "touches" of certain images and text appearing on the screen.  This is the only technology that seems to occasionally experience glitches, but it can most likely be fixed by tweaking the sensitivity of the sensors. (Sarah told me that the TM staff was originally concerned that movement on the floors above the basement would trigger the sensors, but luckily this did not turn out to be the case.

The content in this section of the exhibit is rich and varied, including images, video, and oral histories. The interactive experience allows visitors to explore on their own, and then the educator in charge of the tour brings all of the separate stories together with footage of an interview with one of the area's contemporary immigrant shopkeepers.

I know that seeing the exhibit on my own is not the same as seeing it as part of a group tour, so I'll definitely want to experience it again in a different way, but it was a lot of fun to explore this new addition to the Tenement Museum's great collection of unique experiences.