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Time-travel at the Tenement Museum on its new "Shop Life" tour

The Tenement Museum brings the Lower East Side past to life with restored spaces and interactive technology.

  • Photograph: Caroline Voagen Nelson

    "Shop Life" at the Tenement Museum

  • Photograph: Caroline Voagen Nelson

    "Shop Life" at the Tenement Museum

  • Photograph: Caroline Voagen Nelson

    "Shop Life" at the Tenement Museum

  • Photograph: Caroline Voagen Nelson

    "Shop Life" at the Tenement Museum

  • Photograph: Caroline Voagen Nelson

    "Shop Life" at the Tenement Museum

  • Photograph: Caroline Voagen Nelson

    "Shop Life" at the Tenement Museum

  • Photograph: Caroline Voagen Nelson

    "Shop Life" at the Tenement Museum

  • Photograph: Caroline Voagen Nelson

    "Shop Life" at the Tenement Museum

  • Photograph: Caroline Voagen Nelson

    "Shop Life" at the Tenement Museum

  • Photograph: Caroline Voagen Nelson

    "Shop Life" at the Tenement Museum

  • Photograph: Caroline Voagen Nelson

    "Shop Life" at the Tenement Museum

  • Photograph: Caroline Voagen Nelson

    "Shop Life" at the Tenement Museum

  • Photograph: Caroline Voagen Nelson

    "Shop Life" at the Tenement Museum

  • Photograph: Caroline Voagen Nelson

    "Shop Life" at the Tenement Museum

  • Photograph: Caroline Voagen Nelson

    "Shop Life" at the Tenement Museum

Photograph: Caroline Voagen Nelson

"Shop Life" at the Tenement Museum


When is the last time you've paid a visit to the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side? The cultural treasure, equal parts fascinating and educational (and only experienced via guided tour), isn't always on city parents' radars, but that may soon change with the arrival of "Shop Life." The interactive two-hour introduces visitors to some of the actual shops that occupied the two garden-level storefronts at 97 Orchard Street from the 1860s, when the building was home to tenement apartments, to the 1970s, among them a saloon and an underwear store. Here are five things that will captivate your older child on the Tenement Museum tour.

Frequest a saloon
The entirety of the first storefront is devoted to the saloon, office and home of German immigrants the Schneiders. The "Shop Life" tour begins in the saloon, whose lovingly re-created interior is full of vintage props, from the inviting faux gas lights to the pottery and glassware on the shelves behind the bar. Visitors will learn that saloons such as this functioned primarily as a meeting place for people of all ages—families included—who would show up to socialize, do business, talk politics and even listen to live music while taking in a light meal or drink. A smaller back room allowed visitors some privacy for more intimate conversations.

Ogle 19th-century food
Have the kids can try to identify the various foods in the lavish spread on the back table (sauerkraut, hard-boiled eggs, pigs' feet, pretzels and wurst) that Caroline Schneider would make and offer to guests free of charge (it made customers thirstier). Then continue the food hunt (with your guide, of course) in the kitchen, where wurst hangs to dry as another meal is kept warm on the old-fashioned stove. The facsimiles are so lifelike they're practically mouthwatering. Make sure not to miss the compost bin, a kitchen mainstay showing how no piece of food was allowed to go to waste.

Imagine living here
Kids will likely be intrigued by the idea that families lived where they worked, right behind their stores. Past the kitchen, you'll find the Schneiders' bedroom, outfitted with a cozy sitting area and a huge bed piled heavy with blankets. They'll learn how the Schneiders bathed and also what they used for a toilet (hint: It's outside). If the kids ask if the couple had children, the guide may tell you that one census indicates they were living with a young adult, who may having been a returning child of theirs.

Check out ruins
One of the most fascinating spots on the tour is what the museum calls the "ruin apartments," the back two rooms of the second storefront. The museum deliberately left the area as they found it, with debris in the fireplaces and layers of peeling paint and wallpaper, which symbolically reveal the generations upon generations that made the space their home. 

Bring the past to life by going "shopping"
The tour ends in a lovely storefront, which is decorated in the way it last functioned as a store in the 1970s, down to the clock on the wall. (Curators used a photo of the space that hangs on the wall.) Visitors will see a stack of wooden shelves on which a number of artifacts rest, like a wallet and a rolled up piece of cloth. They appear to simply be on display, but the idea here is to choose one, then place it on the long counter inside a circle where light is shining. The object triggers an interactive display that lets kids learn the object's meaning—what it is, which of three stores it came from (a kosher butcher, an undergarment store or an auction house) and the personal stories behind the families that ran the shop—by projecting slides on the counter and letting visitors listen to the multimedia presentation through an old-fashioned phone. It's the museum's first use of digital technology, and we hope it's not its last. 

Regular "Shop Life" tours will be offered at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum starting on December 3; tickets can be bought online. A limited number of preview tours will be offered in November; call or visit the website for the latest schedule. Note that advance reservations are required. Though the museum recommends the tour for kids ages 12 and up, we think kids ages 10 and up will be fine, or even younger if your child has an unusually long attention span.


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