Tenement Museum’s New Shop Life Tour Connects Past and Present

97 Orchard St. File photo from 2012.
The facade at 97 Orchard Street, home of the Tenement Museum’s new “Shop Life” tour. Photo by Keiko Niwa, courtesy of the Tenement Museum.

If you’re looking for a fun holiday activity to do with friends or family visiting from out of town, “Shop Life,” the Tenement Museum‘s new interactive tour is an interesting way to spend a few hours. It examines the stories of business owners who lived and worked at 97 Orchard Street from 1863 to 1988.

The tour begins in a re-creation of John and Caroline Schneider’s 19th century beer saloon and community gathering spot, the Schneider Saloon. Visitors explore the dining room, kitchen and private quarters of the Schneider family, who lived behind the saloon. A vivid recreation of what life was like in “Little Germany” is presented with news clippings, photos, furniture, food and other items from the time period.

Shop Life then presents artifacts from the other businesses that were once housed in the building, including Israel and Goldie Lustgarten’s 1890s kosher butcher store, Max Marcus’ 1930s auction house and Sidney and Frances Meda’s 1970s undergarment store.

The tour brings a playful, interactive element to the presentation, encouraging participants to take on the characters of past visitors to the shops and imagine what might have brought them there. It ends with a visit to an interactive “shop counter,” offering up your own private touch screen, which leads to multi-media presentations on some of the merchants (and their family members) who are still alive today. It’s the first time the museum has integrated this type of technology into one of their tours.

Visitors get to explore objects from the stories on their own, depending on which one peaks their interest, and are then encouraged to re-cap the most interesting details for the rest of the group.

Annie Polland, the VP of Education and Programs, spearheaded the development of the “Shop Life” exhibit, which has been four years in the making. She told me about the process of testing out the shop table with the brand new technology.

“We created a mock table that we had in one of the classrooms and even when this (space) was under construction, we brought people in to try it out, to see if they liked the stories — which ones worked, which ones didn’t — for a long time. We tested which stories prompted discussion and then we tested ways to get people to have a conversation together. So we really broke it down.”

Even though the tour just opened, she said they have been testing out the shop counter and fine tuning it for almost a year.

Shop Life’s interactive “shop counter,” is the museum’s first-ever tour that incorporates interactive technologies. Created by Potion Design. Photo courtesy of the Tenement Musuem.

After interacting with the multi-media table, visitors are treated to a video interview with the current owner of the Chinese Hispanic bodega on the corner of Broome and Eldridge. The grocery store has been a family-owned business for over three decades and their story connects the dots, bringing the history of immigrant shop owners to the present day.

“A lot of people think the Tenement Museum is just telling a story about 1892 and if you don’t happen to care who lived here then, it can feel remote but (now people are realizing) we’re hitting on dymanics that are relevent today,” Polland explained.

I asked Polland if many people from the neighborhood come on the tours. She said they do get some, on the weekends. “We’d love for more people from the neighborhood to come because they bring such credibility to the group (for the other visitors). The Lower East Siders get treated especially well,” she laughed. Free Shop Life tours are being held Thursday nights at 6:30p and Poland hopes to see more people from the neighborhood there.

Up next for the Tenement Museum is an exploration in to the history of the families who lived at 103 Orchard St., the museum’s current headquarters, which was purchased by them in 2007. They have just begun studying some of the Chinese and Puerto Rican families who previously resided there, and oral histories are being collected.

The museum is open every day from 10am – 6pm, except for Christmas and New Year’s Day.