History Museums and Capitalism: The Need for Critical Conversations

By Andrew Urban

In November, 2018, the Public Historian published a review that I wrote of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum’s newest tour: Under One Roof. The tour interprets the lives of three families who lived in the tenement at 103 Orchard Street — which was acquired by the museum in 2007 — from the 1940s up until the recent past. Addressing post-World War II immigration and migration to the Lower East Side, the educators leading the tours that I took did an excellent job highlighting how Americans have frequently been reluctant to welcome the world’s “huddled masses,” national myths notwithstanding. For instance, visitors are introduced to surveys conducted with Americans in 1946, in which a majority of respondents rejected proposals that would have suspended quota restrictions in order to permit Jewish survivors of the Holocaust and other Displaced Persons from Europe to enter the United States. One of the Under One Roof tours I took occurred in January 2018, a few days after President Trump expressed a desire for the United States to receive immigrants from Norway rather than from “shithole countries” such as Haiti. In 1946, the educator explained, Scandinavian countries also scored favorably with the American public as the most desirable sources of immigration. Through framings such as this, the Under One Roof tour rightly insists that the United States will only be able to come to terms with the controversies and debates that surround immigration policy today if it honestly evaluates its own history — racist attitudes included.

Samantha Grace Lewis, “Occupy the MoMA January 13, 2012.” Occupy Museums, an activist movement that originated as an offshoot of Occupy Wall Street in 2011, has been a leading critic of the relationship between art museums and capitalism. Recent actions have included a 2017 protest at MoMA calling for the removal of board member Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock Inc., whose “investment management company” has used campaign donations and the political appointments of former employees to attack and weaken regulations directed at the finance industry.

Samantha Grace Lewis, “Occupy the MoMA January 13, 2012.” Occupy Museums, an activist movement that originated as an offshoot of Occupy Wall Street in 2011, has been a leading critic of the relationship between art museums and capitalism. Recent actions have included a 2017 protest at MoMA calling for the removal of board member Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock Inc., whose “investment management company” has used campaign donations and the political appointments of former employees to attack and weaken regulations directed at the finance industry.

Founded in 1988, the Tenement Museum was an early adapter of the philosophy that historic house museums in the United States did not have to focus solely on the domestic lives of prominent and affluent Americans. By researching specific family histories and recreating the tenement apartments that immigrants to the Lower East Side inhabited during different eras, the Tenement Museum allows visitors to encounter firsthand the everyday living and working conditions of New York’s foreign-born population (and their native-born children). The museum’s tours contend with the challenges that 97 Orchard Street and 103 Orchard Street’s residents faced, and the amazing resilience that working-class and immigrant tenement dwellers demonstrated in navigating sweatshop economies, high rates of infant mortality, and a constant barrage of middle-class commentary that likened them to everything from diseased vermin to armies of alien invaders. The Tenement Museum believes that these histories can provide a “useable past.” As the museum’s founder Ruth Abram noted in a 2018 interview, “I wanted to bring Americans home to meet our immigrant forbearers… and to help them see that the immigrants on the streets of New York and other parts of our country today are in the very same shoes.” The Tenement Museum’s current President, Kevin Jennings, cites these words as guidelines for thinking about what it means to be “a museum founded for a social purpose.”

My review of the new Under One Roof tour was less enthusiastic, however, when it came to assessing how the Tenement Museum, where I once worked in the early 2000s, sidesteps its own role as an institutional actor and employer on the Lower East Side. The Tenement Museum’s social purpose, as Jennings puts it, does not extend to encouraging visitors to think about what constitutes economic justice for workers and residents of present-day New York City. While Under One Roof does reference the vital role that the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (and its successor, UNITE) played as organizations who advocated on behalf of Puerto Ricans and Chinese immigrants arriving in the neighborhood in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, there were no discussions on my tours of how this history might be made immediately relevant to contemporary audiences. Visitors eager to learn about the present-day plight of garment workers on the Lower East Side and in nearby Chinatown will be disappointed since the industry has all but disappeared from the neighborhood. Still, the area around the Tenement Museum has an abundance of service workers laboring in restaurants, retail shops, and, yes, public history museums, who are waging their own struggles with exploitative labor and in some cases fighting to unionize, a contemporary parallel that Under One Roof does not explore. Given the Tenement Museum’s own checkered past when it comes to the suppression of its educators’ attempts to unionize* — most notably in 2008 — it is hard not to view the lack of commentary on contemporary labor in the neighborhood as an evasion.

Workers at art museums in New York City have demonstrated that institutions can be held accountable when institutional rhetoric about commitments to justice ring hollow. Last August, the staff at MoMA, members of Local 2110 UAW, successfully won a new contract after nearly four months of negotiations, which included a picket of the annual “Party in the Garden” fundraiser the museum hosts and a walkout staged in the lobby. In a statement to Hyperallergic, Athena Christa, a member of Local 2110, noted that “Arts workers are often expected to make personal and financial sacrifices for the honor of working in a prestigious arts institution.” Replace “prestigious arts institution” with “history museum with a social justice mission” and this argument, and the subtle means of exploitation that it captures, could apply to any number of public history institutions as well as non-profits writ large.

Last month, workers at the New Museum voted to unionize, with members joining Local 2110 as well. The move to unionize initially led management at the New Museum to hire a union-busting law firm, Adams Nash Haskell & Sheridan, and, in the days leading up to the vote, to reclassify certain employees as ineligible for representation through the collective bargaining process. Like the Tenement Museum, both MoMA and the New Museum are currently carrying out ambitious plans to expand, while simultaneously claiming that they do not have the resources to offer employees wage increases or extended benefits. Museums like MoMA and the New Museum have staked their reputations on welcoming so-called political artists with social messages, which lends a particular form of irony to the situation. As Lily Bartle, an employee at the New Museum noted in an interview with Jacobin, “there’s this kind of mentality where people, especially people coming from liberal arts backgrounds, feel lucky to have even gotten paid jobs in their field.” Although Bartle was referencing the art world, again, her statement applies equally to jobs in public history. Taking this point a step further, academia’s acceptance of unpaid student internships for work in the humanities conditions laborers in this field to assume that they have no right to ask for fair wages and working conditions. Women predominate among the Tenement Museum’s educational staff, as they do at most public history museums, meaning that the economic precarity they are told to accept is undeniably gendered as well.

Screenshot of WAGENCY’s sample fee schedule for the Whitney Museum of Art, https://wageforwork.com/wagency. WAGENCY encourages artists to use their online fee schedule and database, in order to create a transparent archive of transactions between artists and institutions, and to establish fair industry standards.

Screenshot of WAGENCY’s sample fee schedule for the Whitney Museum of Art, https://wageforwork.com/wagency. WAGENCY encourages artists to use their online fee schedule and database, in order to create a transparent archive of transactions between artists and institutions, and to establish fair industry standards.

Activists and organizers working with history museums might also learn from efforts in the art world to make the market for artists and curators’ labor visible. Labor at history museums is often contingent, meaning tour guides and educators work part-time shifts on an irregular basis; curators and designers are hired on job-by-job contracts; and consultants come and go. As a result, it is often difficult for workers at history museums and historic sites to have any sense of what constitutes a fair wage for their endeavors, let alone an industry standard. WAGENCY, a project founded by W.A.G.E., has created what it describes as a “transactional platform” for artists and art educators struggling to demystify their profession’s labor market’s opaqueness. WAGENCY, by recording and registering transactions between workers and their employers, aims to create standards where they previously did not exist.

How we should think about the political economy of history museums does not end with labor practices. Even though the Under One Roof tour interprets the neighborhood’s recent past, halting its story right around 9/11, it includes no discussion of the Lower East Side’s dramatic and accelerated gentrification in the two decades since. The Tenement Museum has been a beneficiary of the Lower East Side’s transformation into a tourist hub and neighborhood full of boutique hotels, designer clothing shops, and art galleries. Moreover, the museum’s Board of Trustees is chock full of developers, representatives from hedge funds, and other capitalist luminaries who now guide a museum that interprets the history of a neighborhood once renowned for its socialism and radical politics. The Tenement Museum does not have representatives from American Express, Bain and Company, Milstein Properties, and Moody’s Corporation on its board in order to forge a more critical view of how the past might reveal what economic justice in the present should look like — unless something truly subversive is taking place behind closed doors.

When it comes to the proposed Lower East Side Historic District, which would help regulate the construction of glass and steel luxury buildings that increasingly threaten the brick tenements that give the neighborhood its distinctive and historic architectural form, the Tenement Museum has withheld formal support for this initiative and claimed that it is up to the Lower East Side Business Improvement District (BID) to “take the lead on this initiative,” even though the BID has no interest in doing so. Back in the 2000s, the Museum’s co-founders, Abram and Anita Jacobson, were original proponents of the historic district and as recently as 2015, noted in a letter to the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission that, “Absent the protection a Historic District affords, the Tenement Museum, the nation’s only restoration and interpretation of an ‘urban log cabin,’ could one day find itself surrounded by a sea of modern buildings… By tearing down the physical environment in which tenement life took place, we make preserving the memory and telling the story, all the more difficult.”

Dave Brecher, March 14, 2019. Essex Crossing Under Construction.

Dave Brecher, March 14, 2019. Essex Crossing Under Construction.

Dave Brecher, March 14, 2019. An altered sign for Broome Street, at the intersection with Clinton Street, cynically captures the gentrified ethos of the Lower East Side.

Dave Brecher, March 14, 2019. An altered sign for Broome Street, at the intersection with Clinton Street, cynically captures the gentrified ethos of the Lower East Side.

In the course of writing my review of Under One Roof, a former employee of the museum whom I spoke with tried to dissuade me from incorporating any discussion of unionization and gentrification into the piece. Their view was that reaching out to developers in order to fundraise and conduct capital campaigns was simply the cost of doing business for a New York-based museum, and to suggest otherwise was naive. They added that even with its widespread acclaim and success, the Tenement Museum’s annual income — which for the fiscal year ending in June 2017 equaled roughly 9.5 million dollars — hardly made it a bastion of wealth. The implication was that while the Tenement Museum’s educators of course deserved sympathy in their demands for increased wages, benefits, and paid time off, there was simply not enough money to go around. End conversation.

Moving forward, I hope that the relationship between public history institutions and capitalism’s byproducts — gentrification, labor precarity, and high costs of admission — can at least be recognized as targets for structuralist critiques. New Yorkers will gain if they find ways to build history museums where collective and democratic decision-making occurs, and where curators, educators, and staff members determine how resources are distributed. While fundraising will always be crucial, boards of trustees should not be turned over to institutions that drive inequality and profit from its existence. In short, if the Tenement Museum wants to be taken seriously as an institution dedicated to social justice, it needs to practice what it preaches.

Andrew Urban is an Associate Professor of American Studies and History at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, and currently a Fulbright Fellow at the University of Klagenfurt in Austria. His first book, Brokering Servitude(NYU Press, 2018), examines migration and U.S. labor markets for domestic service in the nineteenth and early-twentieth century.

*The day before this post was published, the Tenement Museum front-facing workers voted to unionize with UAW Local 2110.