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Museums Making History Relevant

At a time when issues surrounding migrants, refugees, and immigration have taken center stage, the Tenement Museum is a potent reminder that, as a nation shaped by immigration, our brightest hope for the future lies in the lessons of the past. We’ll explore how the Tenement Museum through storytelling, guided tours, use of our historic buildings, multimedia, primary sources and media shared on our website; and interactive online experiences such as Your Story, Our Story, podcasts and more engages and connects audiences and visitors to history and brings the story of American immigration to life.


David Eng
Chief Marketing and Communications Officer
Tenement Museum

Filmed at MuseumNext NYC – Autumn 2019

Good morning, everybody. How are you? For those of you who are not from New York, welcome to New York. So I’m here this morning to talk about the Tenement Museum specifically, but specifically about what it is that we are doing as a museum to both prepare visitors properly so that they can have the best experience when they come to the museum, and also what we have in the last couple of years begun to do, which is to broaden our reach and sort of target audiences and people who may not ever come to the museum.

For those of us who work in museums, we know that often it’s so site-specific that we often concentrate on just the people who come to the site, walk through our doors, and provide the best possible experience for them. But now I think as museums, we need to sort of think about how do we reach beyond that, especially if you are lucky enough to be at capacity, for example. We are a very site-specific museum. Let me actually find out, how many of you have actually been to the Tenement Museum. Oh, great. All right, good. So I don’t have to spend a whole lot of time explaining to everybody sort of what the museum is all about.

So those of you who have been, which is the most of you, it looks like, we are a historic site museum. I’ve been there for 12 years now as the chief marketing and communications officer. And when I got there 12 years ago, it was very much a historic house museum in the traditional sense of the word, right? Which is that we are two buildings on the Lower East Side, 97 and 103 Orchard Street. These buildings have been preserved. And what we’ve done as a museum is to figure out who actually lived in those buildings. These are some of the residents who have lived in our buildings and we’ve restored the apartment so that when visitors come, they get to sort of get, have a real understanding of how people, immigrants specifically, lived during the time.

In the last couple of years, we’ve in sort of creating the new strategic plan that we are working on now. We have really begun to understand that, A, museums are not neutral, right? Especially when you’re an immigration museum and a museum that talks about immigrants, by virtue of the fact of what we talk about, we are taking a stand, we are taking a position. So this is the new vision for the museum. It’s only about two years old. It doesn’t talk about the collections. It doesn’t even talk about the building itself or the historic site. What it actually talks about is that, by virtue of what we talk about every day at the museum, we are hoping that we will create a society that embraces and values the fundamental role of immigration in the evolving American identity.

And for those of you who are well aware, certainly in the last five or six years, immigration has become quite the touch point here in this country. So when that began to happen, we also saw that how visitors responded to what they were hearing at the museum and onsite also began to change a bit. We always assumed that everybody who came to the Tenement Museum must all love immigrants and immigration. And it turned out that as the last five or six years, we began to see, even hear vocally from visitors, that they may not be so comfortable talking about this particular issue.

So we actually also began to look at the fact that I sincerely believe that the visitor experience doesn’t just happen when they come through the door, when they show up in the morning or in the afternoon, or whenever it is they come. And if they spend an hour or two hours at the museum and they leave, that’s not the extent of the visitor experience. So in terms of the marketing and the communications and sort of keeping a relationship going with our visitors, I began to sort of look at how do you prepare the visitor before they actually show up so that when they actually walk through your doors, they will have the best possible experience. And that means understanding what that experience will be and what are some of the things that will be talked about on the tour. And then how do you maintain that relationship with them after they leave?

Our president, Kevin Jennings, who just left the museum, this was his last week, so we’re beginning our search for the next leader for the museum. He said to us, when he came to the Tenement Museum, he said, “I want to reach that person sitting in Montana, who may never get on a plane and come to New York City. How is that person going to understand, or even have some awareness about what this museum is and what this museum talks about?” So I’m going to share with you this morning some of the things that we’ve begun to do in order to broaden our reach on our walls, beyond the site of the museum.

Because we’re lucky in the sense that we’ve been … we’re at capacity. So those of you who’ve been to the museum knows that you can only see it by guided tour. We’re not a traditional museum where you just walk through and sort of have your own experience. You go with a group of people and you have a guided experience. So that means, because these are historic buildings that have very limited spaces, there are only so many people that we can squeeze through with these buildings, right? So we’re at capacity now. We’re at 275,000 visitors a year. And that basically is all the people that we can squeeze through in this building between the hours of 10 and 6:30 with three tours leaving every 10, 15 minutes. Right?

So we’re only closed three days out of the year. Luckily, I don’t have to work all those days. The visitor services staff, the very hardworking visitor services staff, has to do that. So in thinking about that, we really had to think about what does growth for a museum like this also look like, right? Growth for many, many, many sites are, how do we bring in 5,000 more people, 10,000 more people, whatever that number is. For us, growth is not the actual number of people who walks through the doors. So I’m going to also share that with you all this morning as well, what that actually means.

So this is a film that I … Because 70% of our visitors actually buy the tickets online before they come, we can also plan capacity accordingly that way. But also I have an ability to reach them before they actually come. Because they buy their tickets online, I have the emails, I send an email out to them about four or five days before they actually show up. And this film is attached to that, which then will helpfully prepare them for the visit.

Kevin Jennings: From the way we eat, to the way we worship, to the way we live, and to the way we work, there’s not a single part of American life that hasn’t been affected by immigrants, migrants and refugees. The fact is, America wouldn’t be American if it wasn’t for the contributions of real people who came from elsewhere and hopes of creating a better life for themselves and their families. The mission of the Tenement Museum is to tell the uniquely American stories of immigrants, migrants, and refugees in the ongoing creation of our nation. In 1988, a woman named Ruth Abram found a dilapidated building that had been condemned for over 50 years at 97 Orchard Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

Kathryn Lloyd:  Between the years 1863 and the end of the 20th century, we estimate that over 10,000 people lived in 97 and 103 Orchard Street. There are thousands of stories that we might be able to tell between these two buildings, stories that help us understand the evolution of the Lower East Side as a neighbourhood that helps us explore American identity.

Ellysheva Zeira:   I think one of the most amazing things about the Tenement Museum is the power of place, that you can actually walk into the recreated homes of people who truly lived in these buildings and not just hear their story, see their information, see pictures of them, but actually to stand, to be in the place where they lived and look around at what their home may have looked like. That’s what is really crucial for us here, is to create that story, bring visitors in so that they are immersed in the story, so they make a connection with the story.

David Eng:  I think that people who come here, whether they have a notion of what immigrants, migrants and refugees went through or not, inevitably are moved because of what they hear. And they can identify with these stories. Our visitors always say that they see the parallels and the correlations, no matter where they came from or what country they currently live in. They find some commonality in these stories because it’s everybody’s struggles.

The Tenement Museum is looking into the future and looking at how we can spread the story beyond the walls. We know that there are immigration stories all across this country. Without immigrants and migrants and refugees, America wouldn’t be what it is today.

Kevin Jennings: The thing that unites all Americans is hope, hope that we can create a better society and a better life for our descendants. Regardless of where we came from or our historical experience, I think America is a nation that’s founded on the hope of a better life.

David Eng: So in a very, short sort of bite-size way, people get a sense of what they’re going to experience when they come. They know they’re going to be looking at the spaces, but the narrative of this is that it’s not just about the space, right? It’s really about the stories that they will hear, that they will have some correlation to.

So how is it to make history relevant? Right? Because we talk about a very specific time in these buildings lives, in these people’s lives. And what I found in the past was that people would often come and go, “Well, those were the good immigrants. Those were the people that you came for a good reason, not the immigrants that come today, which are all criminals and here to take our jobs.” So this notion of how do you make this history relevant to what’s going on today, I’m going to show you some examples of that, sort of, well, how do you take traditional storytelling and sort of make it connective through a lot of interactive technology that we’re using now, both onsite as well as off, to help begin to bring people the … Now what we’re seeing is like 300,000 visitors, including school groups and everything, that comes to the door, of the actual people who come to Orchard Street.

So one of the first ways we began to do it is that onsite when you go on a tour, we begin to look at, for those of you who may have come quite some time ago, we were very old fashioned. We would hold up sort of laminated maps and photos and say, “Here’s who lived here and here’s something they may have used.” So what we have begun to do is, looking at the spaces, how do we include interactive technology that’s not intrusive, but then will connect people to actually what’s going on.

This is our newest tour, which is called Under One Roof, which talks about three families who lived in the newer building. And you see there’s a TV set here that belong to that family. It was the [Sayez 00:12:00] family, a Puerto Rican migrant family that lived in this apartment. What people love most is the plastic on the couches, because we all dealt … Right? Those of us who were old enough remember that we all had plastic. I had plastic on my couch at home. And so we sort of use the TV. And because we had the oral history of the gentleman who was a young boy who lived in the apartment, we use that to add during the tour for people to understand and hear his story and actually see him, which really helps bring it to life.

We also have recreated a sweat shop in one of these apartments, because as some of you know, the sweat shop industry was very prevalent on the Lower East Side at one point. And so in this sweatshop, visitors can also sit at the machines and hear and see a lot of the oral history that is going on. They walk around the room and they see the bulletin board that the sweatshops used to have with union announcements and so forth. And then we sort of embedded the video in those spaces as well.

This is a saloon that was on the ground floor of 97 Orchard Street, Schneider’s Saloon. One half of it was a very traditional sort of Tenement Museum tour where you see the recreated space. But then on the second half of the tour, the visitors can actually then listen and touch a table and get the stories of the merchants that were on the Lower East Side over time. Again, this is just another way to help connect people. And we also found that with the younger visitors, this type of technology was very resonant for them. And even the older ones too, by the way. Those of us who are older also appreciate this too.

So what we’ve begun to do also is to think about what digital storytelling is, because like I said, we can’t really squeeze that many more people through the buildings. We’re beginning to think about how to use digital content to do storytelling to get your message out. So I’ve recently added to my team a digital content producer, who specifically now works on creating some of these examples that you’re going to see, which we push out through social media, we push out through many different ways, as many different ways as we can, to reach as many different people as we can.

So people have said to me, “Well, you know, we don’t have the money to create all these images.” And I say to people, especially historic museums, “You have all of this graphic, visual art in your archives.” So what we’ve done is we just taking the photos in our photo archive, we’ve taken the stories, and we’ve created this kind of digital content where now seen a 532% increase in traffic and awareness and impressions and sharing, right? So the key takeaway here is that experiment with dynamic content, but you can do it with your old-fashioned graphics and visuals as well. You don’t have to necessarily pay thousands and thousands of dollars to design and create visuals for this type of media, especially.

This is yet another example of using the archive material that we have. And we’ve sort of given it this sort of older, sort of scratchy, as you can see, sort of visual trick here that we’ve used to make it look old so that it feels right for the era. But again, it helps to talk about the stories. We’re using the stories of the people to push this out, but always at the end remind people that they should come to the museum, right? Because at the end of this, you’ll see it always says back, “If you want to find more about the story, come to the Tenement Museum.”

We recently had an opportunity to have a billboard in Times Square, one of those big LED screens. So if you guys have been up to Times Square, you know that it’s nothing but LED screens now, right? The old-fashioned billboards don’t exist anymore. And so because we had an opportunity to have one of these boards to be used, we wanted to promote our Your Story, Our Story project, which I’ll tell you about it in a bit. And so we just used stock footage and my digital content purchaser turned it into something that felt like it came from the Tenement Museum. And also anything that has the movement tends to … video and anything with movement are the things that get the most responses, right? On social media. We see that every time we have something with movement on it, those are the items that get the most shares and the most impressions.

And then now we’re starting to-

Cora:                            She wanted for us to thrive and live in a different culture.

David Eng:                    … creating a podcast.

Cora:                            For her the US represented more access for woman.

David Eng:                    And this is an example of a story that we’ve highlighted.

Cora: Someone said something to me a long time ago, and they said, “No one will ever understand the pressure of being the child of immigrants and living up to the dreams that they have for you.” And they made it seem like it was this stressful thing, but to me, it’s this infinite well of energy and inspiration. The idea that I am my parent’s wildest dreams. It brings me so much joy because it really is a testament to their unconditional love. And my dad, he always says, “I would cross a million borders for you if that’s what it took to give you what I want you to have.”

David Eng: So this is a modern story. This is not a woman … Cora, who’s the lady up there in the corner, is not someone who lived in our buildings, but she submitted her story to our Your Story, Our Story site. So that was another way for us to expand the storytelling aspect of the museum, because we also found that about … At some point, for me it was probably five years ago when I actually began to run out of stories to tell. Right? Those of us who work at historic site museums, and you’re telling very specific stories, at some point, you sort of begin to run out of stories to tell people, because you’ve told so much of those family stories.

So in order to broaden what the scope of those stories are, we created this Your Story, Our Story project, and in collecting … where anybody from anywhere who has access to a computer can go in and put in their story, their own immigration story. And Cora was one of those people, which is why we got in touch with her, decided to highlight her story. This is the Your Story, Our Story site. You guys should go on it if you can, when you get an opportunity. It’s connected to our own website and basically it’s a story collecting site. It’s a digital, like we call it our digital exhibit, and it is now … We have about 6,000-plus stories from people all around the country who have basically gone on there and used an object, because we’re very much an object-based museum.

So people will put in a story about a bowl or a watch or their grandfather’s recipe or anything, anything that’s related to their own family story. In this case, for example, someone’s uncle’s watch becomes an immigration story. And the idea is to really, for people who go on to this, understand the tapestry that makes up this country, right? And that people’s stories, aren’t always connected to just the human being, but often to the objects. Because for most … I’m a refugee myself. And I know that when I came here, the toy car that my mother brought was the only item that we could bring with us, that toy car meant everything to me and meant everything about my past as well.

So remember if you’re doing digital content, it must be mobile, right? You cannot just rely someone go on a laptop or onto their computer. These days, almost 70 to 80% of transactions are done on their phones. I know out of those 70% of tickets that we sell online, 50% of those ticket orders are done on a phone. So you need to always be aware of that. This is our new website, which we also redid and relaunched this year. And again, as you can see, when people go onto it, it’s not about the building. It’s not about the wallpaper. It’s not about the linoleum. It’s about the stories. It’s about the people.

And this is just a quick sort of walk through to see that we do … By the way, we do all of our business on this website, all of the marketing is done on this website. I have zero advertising dollars. I don’t do any traditional advertising or promotion. We do everything online, whether through social media or through our website. So we’ve embedded all kinds of video and information onto the website. This is how someone buys a ticket as well.

And then the curriculum, all the educational information that we use with schools with outside sources, all our resources, everything’s available on our website so that people can go on there and get whatever information they need to get about the museum and what the museum does is all in one place. We’ve gotten in the last six months about 8,000 visitors a month, new visitors. So the traffic is quite impressive for a museum our size. Just some reminders, if you’re doing website, what you should be thinking of.

Content resource. Like I said, all the curriculum that we have created is on the website and available for everybody to access. Make it easy for your audiences to get information, right? Don’t make it hard for them. Don’t make them have to search. Don’t make them have to call four people to get what they need. Make it all available to them. The more available you make it to them, the more likely it is they will follow up with you and begin a relationship.

And the most recent thing that we’ve done is we’ve launched our first podcast series. And it really is sort of creating a real digital presence for the museum. And this podcast series has been quite successful. The first season, we are in 150 countries with 75,000 listeners and subscribers. That means that the Tenement Museum, I can honestly say now, is in 150 countries, right? Because we actually have listeners and people who know about us. And my hope is that those people, if they come and travel to New York, they’ll actually come to the museum. So it’s a marketing tool.

Social media is important, but don’t do social media for the sake of doing social media. Curate your social media the same way you curate an exhibit. That’s the way how we approach it. I don’t just want to put stuff up for the sake of putting stuff up. That’s why people follow us, because they want to see the story that we’re telling. So the social that’s done from day to day, whether it’s Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter, is telling the same story arc that they would get when they come to visit your museum. And these are just some of the recent numbers for the museum in terms of impressions.

And like I said, this is the final piece, which we’re very proud of, which is this podcast. And I wanted to give you a little bit of … If you’re going to do podcasts, though, if you’re going to do anything, you need to have some digital presence for it on your website to support it so that people can get more information. So don’t do a podcast and then just push it out into the world and have it be an orphan all by itself. The podcast has to have a home to come to, and that’s creating a presence for it on your website as well so that people can get more information. Like I was saying, our reach now, it’s quite impressive. That that number has been updated now to 150 countries.

And by the way, by doing something like a podcast, you get influencers to talk about you, right? So you’re creating ambassadors for yourself. If you’re creating smart digital presence, it means that you create ambassadors who talk about you who have their own followings. And their followers, the people who follow them, may not know about your museum either. So you’re creating more audience for what you talk about.

Margaret Chin: I am Margaret Chin, City Council Representative for District One in Lower Manhattan. I immigrated to New York City, January 9th, 1963. And when we landed at the airport, it was the first time that I saw snow and touched it. I mean, I’ve seen it in movies, but it was the first time that I saw the real thing.

David Eng: So that is just a little bit of a soundbite for you. But again, it’s not a story. She didn’t live in our building, right? She’s a real person. She’s a city council person here in New York. And it’s using her story for people to identify with. And I’ll just quickly show you that the old-fashioned thought leadership in media is still important to do, right? Don’t forget that. I know I talked about the new media, but don’t forget that this has just as much influence as-

Newscaster 1:               There’s a war on Christmas.

Newscaster 2:               The war on Christmas-

Newscaster 3:               The war on Christmas-

Kevin Jennings: Every year about this time, pundits and even presidents of bemoan the so-called war on Christmas, a war waged with such lethal weapons as Starbucks coffee cups. Infuriated that they are expected to say happy holidays, rather than Merry Christmas, these folks work themselves into a predictable lather.

Donald Trump: Remember the attack on Merry Christmas? They’re not attacking it anymore. Everyone’s happy to say Merry Christmas. Right?

Kevin Jennings: As the son of a minister, I find myself baffled by this phenomenon. No one’s telling me I can’t celebrate my holiday. I’m just being asked to grant equal respect to traditions not like my own. But to folks used to having their holidays privileged as the ones to celebrate, equality can feel like oppression. Being asked to recognise that their tradition is not the only one, some Christians feel like they are losing something by saying happy holidays. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

I’m currently sitting in the recreated apartment of Josephine Baldizzi, a Catholic Italian resident who lived in what is now the Tenement Museum as a child during the Great Depression. Her story illuminates how people of different phase have historically found a way to live together in the US without going to war with people who had traditions different than their own. Josephine’s neighbours where the Rosenthals, an Orthodox Jewish family who had a special task for her every Friday night.

Josephine Baldi…: I can still see Mrs. Rosenthal in the air shaft window waving to me, motioning for me to come in and to turn on the lights because it was the Sabbath, the Jewish holiday, and they weren’t allowed to touch the electricity. It made me very proud to have to do that. I used to feel good that she chose me to do that job for her.

Kevin Jennings: Josephine was serving as the Sabbath goy, goy being Yiddish for a non-Jewish person, a role where a non-Jew enables a Jewish family to celebrate their traditions. Josephine didn’t feel threatened by traditions different than her own. It made her feel special to play a role in them. Her story shows us that difference could be something we enjoy, not something we have to feel threatened by. As we enter another holiday season of overheated rhetoric about the war on Christmas, maybe there’s a lesson we could learn from families like the Baldizzis and the Rosenthals, a lesson about how sharing and delighting in each other’s traditions makes us a better nation.

David Eng: And that’s it. Thank you, everybody.


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