On Display



Stephanie Johnson-Cunningham illuminates how museum professionals are pushing boundaries to respond to the issues of our time. In this episode, we explore how immigration is on display through the lens of the New-York Historical Society and Tenement Museum. New episodes weekly.

AIRED: April 22, 2020 | 0:13:16

There is this false narrative.

That museums are nuetral.

To political issues

But everything is political.

We're looking at museums.

That are pushing boundaries.

Who are boldly participating in -

The Conversation around major

Issues in the United States of America

The are reframing the role The institutions play

And helping to shape define and preserve today for the future

This is On Display.



-Few things have shaped the American identity

as decisively as immigration.

These immigrants literally made New York City

one of the most dynamic and innovative places in the world.

Their stories is that of America's history.


We know that the narrative now moves towards

who gets to be an American.

It's important to first remember that this controversy isn't new.

Throughout our history, prior generations

have voiced similar concerns that new waves of immigrants

will somehow make America less American.


I think despite the fact that there's all these conversations

around how problematic immigrants are

and how they're not good for the country,

there are organizations like the New York Historical Society

working to combat that narrative.



-In 2017, we wanted to figure out a way

to help new Americans or aspiring Americans

become citizens.

Now, we teach 200,000 schoolchildren each year

and have developed curriculum materials

for the 11th-grade Regents.

So we thought, why not marry what we're doing here already

with helping new Americans pass the civics portion

of the naturalization test?

And so the Citizenship Project was born.

-We are trying to educate a group of immigrants

who were not educated here

and have to study 100 questions in English.

So, the museum is offering this novel approach

to learning for them that I think they have enjoyed.

You know, otherwise just sitting at home

reading a card, a flashcard,

you can actually feel, touch, and see some of these things

that you have only thought about on a flashcard.


-So, one of the questions on the civics portion

of the naturalization test is,

"What was one of the causes of the Civil War?"

And the simple answer is slavery.

But what we do is we take our class participants

up to our...

and show them a maquette of Harriet Tubman.


She escaped from Maryland,

and she returned 13 times to save over 70 slaves.

So, we ask our students, "What does it make you think

about the importance of the role

that she played during the Civil War?"

-Yeah, she was known as a conductor,

so I can also see that kind of --

Probably why she's leaning forward.

She's conducting and leading

people into freedom. -Right.

-And, also, the train tracks, as well, right?


-Because my family is a first generation to this country,

it was always interesting to see works in the museum

that related to their history.

I work in museums, and this is an issue that is close to me,

and it is an issue that I'm happy to see that museums

are also thinking about and talking about, as well.


-And, so, why is this work

important to you, Monique, personally?

-So, for me, personally, I'm an immigrant.

I've been here -- I think this is going to be my 20th year.

And I had to go through the immigration process.

And although I went to college here,

I have a master's degree,

I went into the interview and I was so nervous, you know?

I knew I only had six questions to get correct,

but, you know, it's a daunting process of someone being there,

and you're like, "Oh, God.

Did I memorize all of these questions correctly?"

So for most people who are not college-educated,

are not affluent in, you know, speaking,

you know, it's a nervous experience for them.


-I've really been privileged to not know any of these things

because my parents came here to this country

and did all that hard work for me.

I think it's so important,

even though I am an American citizen now,

for me to understand just how hard and difficult it is

to become a citizen now of the United States of America.


-I would say, in the last three years,

this administration has made it really tough

for people to even consider becoming a U.S. citizen --

the anti-immigrant message that you're hearing.

Nobody thinks about immigration and the museum

as a place of learning, of helping green-card holders,

so those things -- A program like this

is what is encouraging people to apply.


-I think it's really critical that museums

move away from this narrative that they aren't "political."

Any stance that you take,

whether you talk about something or not,

you've taken a political stance.

People often think about museums

as places of the past that tells history,

but we know that history is continuous,

history is ongoing,

and so they also can be a part

of this historical present moment

and the narrative around who immigrants are.


The Tenement Museum provides an opportunity

to learn firsthand

about some of our earliest immigrants

here in the United States of America.

There are wonderful objects and documents

that show just exactly how their experience was

here in New York City,

and they also show some of the correlation

between past immigrants and current immigrants today.


Why was it important to preserve

the very space where immigrants once lived?

-These are spaces where people were living

and working and cooking and cleaning,

raising families.

For people to be able to really realize

that these were not easy conditions.

And when we're really lucky,

we're able to make the connections to the present.

And so for people to realize

that for immigrants coming today,

often their conditions are not much -- not much better.


-As I think more and more about this narrative,

I become more and more proud of my mom and dad.

I don't know how they did it.

I have no idea if I would be able to do it, honestly.

If you put me anywhere with less than 50 dollars...

What? [ Chuckles ]


And, so, do you think immigrants who came here 100 years ago

are different from the immigrants that come today?

-Fundamentally, not really.

If we're looking 100 years ago, people would have been --

More of them would have been coming from Europe.

And, so, people are browner now.

But in terms of people coming for opportunities,

those are still reasons that people come today.


-I find it so interesting that in the past

you had so many Irish immigrants, Italian immigrants,

the Jewish immigrants, and commentary around

them not being able to be American enough.

And we see that same rhetoric today,

even though it's towards a different group of people.


These stories help us to understand

our national identity.

America is an immigrant story.

We know that the entire emphasis and basis

of who we are here in the United States

extends or speaks to the immigrant experience.


-For a lot of the immigrants,

to the extent that there already were some people

from within their communities here,

there would be often, like, a mutual-support society

that might help in terms of, you know,

this is how you find a job, some diet advice,

even though sometimes the diet advice was,

you know, make your food blander

because it's too -- What you eat is too spicy.

Which... -No.

-Okay. -Yeah. [ Laughs ]

-Spicy's fine. [ Laughs ] You know.


-What we see is that museums are moving towards

what theyshould be moving towards --

tackling real issues

that people that are coming through their doors every day

are dealing with.

I think when these institutions

begin to talk about them in real ways,

then you get the larger public to really understand it.


How do you see museums playing a role

in talking about these issues that relate to immigration?

-History can speak -- you know, can speak for itself,

and museums can be a forum for those conversations.

We have a Tenement Talks series

where we will often invite community leaders,

government officials to talk about issues

that are related to immigration.

But if you're an art museum,

there's the opportunity to share the arts

that are created by immigrants,

to think about the way the art is displayed.

Are you allowing people to tell their own stories?

-I mean, speaking of stories, another thing that we've done

is Your Story, Our Story... -Hmm.

-...where there's an opportunity to really encourage people

to share either their own immigration story,

migration story, refugee story.

And, you know, it's through those stories

that people are able to make connections

to past, to present... -Mm-hmm.

-...to see so many of the common themes that --

you know, like our shared humanity.


-We all have an immigration story, as well,

so kind of bringing it back to the present

and not thinking about immigration

as this thing that's far away or thinking about this thing

that, within our national narrative,

that is problematic -- that we all are immigrants.

-The United States is always changing,

you know, so there isn't a point in time

where you, you know, press a button and say,

"Okay. We're done. This is America now."

I think in many ways, you know, people come to museums,

you know, both bringing what they think they already know...

And then, you know, so, sometimes what we share

might support that, but sometimes

it's an opportunity to learn something new.

-Yeah. Yeah. And tell the unvarnished truth.

-Exactly. Exactly. -Yeah.


Conversations around social issues

are growing beyond museums' walls,

and I think museums and a lot of museum professionals

have decided that we should also

be having these conversations in our spaces.

So we do see this boiling up of this movement

now becoming a force.

I think museums can and do have the power

to change and shift narratives

and to change and shift, um...

people's experiences here in the United States of America.






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