Then and Now:
Finding Our Way Through Storytelling
By Jenny Gillett
The Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York City is a historic home and museum that tells the personal stories of American immigration. I remember hearing a lot about the Museum and its immersive approach to teaching history, so one summer on a visit to New York, I made a point of checking it out.
Knowing the tours tended to sell out, I went on the website and selected a tour that reflected my family heritage. My mother's family is Italian-American, so I booked the "Hard Times" tour. Our educator guided us through the space, originally built in 1863 and occupied continuously until 1935, introducing us to real families that lived in 97 Orchard St. One of them was the Baldizzi family, who immigrated from Sicily in the 1920's. Adolfo, the father, was a carpenter like my grandfather Salvatore, who immigrated to the United States from Italy in 1929. I was struck by the similarities in this family's story and my own family history, was moved by hearing tales of their struggle, and was captivated by audio recordings of some of the family members recalling their memories of the tenement. This history felt like a part of my own story.
Fast forward a few years and I’ve moved to New York and find myself working as an educator at the Tenement Museum. The first tour I started teaching was Hard Times, completely by coincidence, but it was easy for me to learn and lead as I felt connected to its story in a personal way. This intimate connection to history, using the actual stories of residents to help illustrate the larger experiences of immigration, makes the Tenement Museum successful at illuminating countless family journeys to the United States.
In order to construct these stories, the Museum relies upon several methods of research and exploration. For example, on the Hard Times tour, we also feature the story of Julius and Natalie Gumpertz, a German-Jewish family that lived at 97 Orchard Street in the 1870‘s. To tell the story of this family, we engage in storytelling based upon primary sources - census records, birth and death certificates, court records, and more. From these records we discover information such as when they lived in the building, their professions, whether or not they were educated and whether they sought financial assistance in times of trouble. We have limited knowledge, but what becomes more important is what we can learn from these past experiences that may be cyclical, and may apply to immigrant stories today.
I love the moments on my tours when visitors engage and share their own family traditions and stories. For example, when I lead the Irish Outsiders tour I often share Irish music and food traditions, followed by traditions from my own Italian-American family. On a tour this past Christmas Eve, several families shared their own Christmas Eve food and family traditions, from Peru to Austria to the Middle East and more. Learning about traditions we share over time creates a larger idea and conversation, and may illuminate the many values we actually share.
In addition to documents that clue us in to family stories, with our later families such as the Baldizzis, we use recorded oral histories from residents that grew up in the building. The museum’s newest tour, Under One Roof, located in our second Tenement building at 103 Orchard Street, features three families and takes us into the 1970’s – using interviews with living relatives who have so kindly decided to share their experiences. This provides an even closer look at the lives of our residents, and an even more significant way for visitors to connect.
Another way the Museum engages with its visitorship is through its digital initiative, Your Story, Our Story, or YSOS. YSOS invites Museum visitors, both school groups and the public, to contribute images and stories of family heirlooms in order to explore a connection to their heritage. In addition to contributing their own story, visitors can browse thousands of other entries and explore thematic links between contributions. YSOS provides a unique opportunity to examine cross-cultural and cross-generational similarities in our family stories. For students, it provides the opportunity to learn more about their own families, and shows us all how we may honor our own ancestral journeys.
When my grandfather passed away last year, I shared his story and a photo of a trestle table he had built on YSOS. My grandfather Salvatore, later called Sam, came to the United States when he was only nine years old. His family moved to Erie, Pennsylvania to work at the General Electric factory. He fought in World War II, then met my grandmother Elvira and they settled down and raised four children together. He worked as a cabinet maker at General Electric, but was also an artist, creating beautiful pieces of furniture, turned candlesticks, inlaid dishes, and other family heirlooms that we still treasure today.
Now, when I tell the story of the Baldizzi family, and how Adolfo was a carpenter and cabinet maker himself, I think of my own grandfather and my own family's journey. I am proud to share my story with our visitors to the Tenement Museum, and hope that the experience visiting and engaging in storytelling with us will help inspire reflection and reverence for their own family stories as well.
This article can be found in Winter 2018 - "Finding the Story: Creative and Collaborative Processes" (Volume 28, Issue 1) of IMTAL Insights.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Jenny Gillett is an educator with a performance background in puppetry and movement. As an educator, she focuses on teaching through the arts, and is especially interested in causes rooted in humanitarian work and social justice. She currently works as an Educator at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, and as a Teaching Artist in New York public schools through Wingspan Arts. Previously, she has held positions at the Skirball Cultural Center where she facilitated the Build A Better World Program, at the Children’s Museum of Manhattan where she led the Museum’s Shelter Outreach Program, at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County where she presented educational curriculum using performance and puppetry, and at the La Brea Tar Pits and Museum where she operated a life-sized Saber Toothed Cat puppet built by the Jim Henson Creature Shop. She holds her M.A. in Educational Theatre from New York University.