The Museum at Eldridge Street, a Synagogue originally built in 1887 by Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, addresses issues of immigration both within the museum and through an online learning platform, Newcomers to New York. 1 This distance-learning element affords the opportunity for teachers, students, and other interested parties to explore the immigration story of lower Manhattan through a virtual walking tour of important sites. The interactive online exhibit organizes important sites by cultural group, highlighting these groups’ stories through time. The timeline runs from the Dutch founding of New Amsterdam from 1624-1644 through to 2007, when the African Burial Ground was declared a national monument. Addressing such an expanse of time for such a diverse population is achieved by focusing on a small section of the city, and on sites that remain standing physically or hold such importance that, though they have since been wiped from the cultural landscape, remain standing in collective memory.
The map encourages the visitor to take a virtual walking tour through space and time, offering photos, audio descriptions, and brief histories of each site on the list. The lesson plans adapt the educational philosophy utilized in the Tenement Museum to an online platform, asking students open-ended questions to encourage them to think critically about the sites and put themselves in the role of the immigrant. 2 By encouraging students to ask and answer provoking questions, the website allows students to gain a more complete understanding of the immigrant experience and gives students a knowledge base to then build debate within the classroom. With lesson plans broken down by age group and maturity level, this virtual walking tour can be adapted for learning at all levels.
Created in fulfillment of the NEH 2008 Landmarks of American History and Culture Grant, this project brought together scholars, museum professionals, and over 100 teachers from across the country to develop an adaptable learning platform. This collaborative effort is evident in the breadth of material available through the website. Beyond the lesson plans, the website includes the watercolor depictions of the buildings, the printable pdf files detailing the immigrant experiences for different ethnic groups represented in the map, and the audio from building.
Where this learning platform falls short is the lack of individuals’ stories. Though the online tour addresses important locations and ethnic groups as a whole, the stories of individual immigrants would add depth and color to this project. By including the rich documentary and literary record of the immigrant experience in the audio clips or in the supplementary materials, the project could expand from architectural history to personal history, providing a more human element to the walking tour.
This website encourages students to consider the immigrant story of the past and its ramifications for the present. Immigration continues to be a contentious issue today; attention to this shared experience in a nation of immigrants is essential for promoting dialogue, and through dialogue, understanding. New York City continues to be a communal center for cultural exchange; this online adventure through space and time remembers the city’s rich history of immigration and the continuous, ever-changing, promise of the American dream.
1: The Museum at Eldridge Street. “Newcomers to New York.” Accessed February 5, 2014. http://www.eldridgestreet.org/newcomers/.
2: Abram, Ruth J. “Kitchen Conversations: Democracy in Action at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum.” The Public Historian 29, no. 1 (Winter 2007): 59-76. url: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/tph.2007.29.1.59