Overrated/Underrated Historical Museums


Most Underrated Historical Museum: A tie—between the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York City, and the National Civil Rights Museum, in Memphis. Both museums are unique adaptations of historic buildings, two of the most innovative and truly moving historical museums I have ever seen. The Lower East Side Tenement Museum consists primarily of an early, cold-water New York tenement, at 97 Orchard Street, built in 1863 and the home to one wave after one of European immigrants, before its owner closed it in 1935 (rather than adhere to a new city ordinance requiring that each apartment be equipped with a working toilet!). The museum has painstakingly researched the history of each apartment in the tenement, and recreated five of them, with a sixth to follow soon, just as they were back in different eras stretching from the Civil War to the Great Depression. To take one of the museum’s guided tours is to pass through working-class, urban life as it was lived for some seventy years by German, Irish, Jewish, and Italian immigrants. It is history conveyed through the implements these new Americans worked and ate and cleaned with, through the beds they slept in, the crude wooden tubs that doubled as kitchen sinks, the dark hallways where they groped their way along at night; even the spoken words of a living woman who lived in the building as a child. One is struck more deeply than ever, on a much more visceral level than either words or even photographs can convey, by the sacrifices so many of our ancestors made, how hard their lives really were—and what a short time ago it all was. The tiny proportions of the rooms they once crowded into are enough to bring tears to the eyes.

The National Civil Rights Museum is located in what was once Memphis’ Lorraine Motel, the same motel where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was murdered. The museum has gutted most of the building’s original, two-storey interior, and replaced it with an ingenious display, a series of remarkable, largely hands-on exhibits chronicling the history of the modern civil rights movement. Visitors can sit in a perfect replica of the Montgomery city bus on which Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat and move back to the “colored” section—and even hear a recording of the words the white bus driver said to her. There are further replicas of the Woolworth’s lunch counter in North Carolina where the sit-in movement took off in 1960; the Freedom Riders’ Greyhound bus so infamously torched by white supremacists in 1961; the interior of a Southern jail cell, and many other tactile reminders of how difficult it was to achieve the rights that so many of us now take for granted.

All of these exhibits, along with a strong, running historical text, are situated along a winding, gently rising ramp, so that the visitor ends his tour in the actual room that King stayed in, reassembled to look as it did on that fateful evening of April 4, 1968, when he stepped out on the second-floor balcony and was struck down by a sniper’s bullet. It is another room capable of bringing one to tears, in part when one looks at the wreath commemorating the spot where Dr. King fell, right there right out there before you on the balcony—but also when you look at the sheer homeliness of the room itself, a room King was sharing with another minister. It reminds you again of how many such rooms Dr. King had to stay in during his long years on the road, of how this was the best that a Nobel laureate and one of the greatest Americans who ever lived, could expect even in 1968, if his skin were the wrong color.

A few years ago, the museum also acquired the rundown boardinghouse from which James Earl Ray shot and killed Dr. King, and those who are so inclined can make the short walk across and actually stand on the spot where Ray crouched in a bathtub and fired the fatal shot—a grisly but intriguing historical footnote. Altogether, it is an incomparable preservation of our historical memory, though my colleague Allen Barra also highly recommends the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, which is located just across from the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, the epicenter of so many vital moments in the civil rights struggle. I have never had the opportunity to visit the institute, but if it is anything like the National Civil Rights Museum it, too, is well worth the trip.

Most Overrated Historical Museum:  Any and all museums of financial history. The museum at the visitors’ gallery in the New York Stock Exchange has been closed—along with the gallery—since 9/11, but even when it was open it was a great disappointment. The problem with the stock exchange museum, along with every other financial history exhibit I have ever seen, is that they try to serve as a sort of financial prospectus—sober, dry, and reassuring. This is understandable, but it leaves out all the good stuff. A first-rate financial museum would trust us dedicated capitalists with the great panics and swindles, the coups and raids, venality and greed—in short, all of the things that make history and finance both so much fun. Grand paeans to the market, or to various pillars of fiscal rectitude are all fine and good, but without the whiff of a real killing why are all those people working the floor in the first place?