NYC Museum Opens New Exhibit; Tenement Museum Unveils Shop Life

A family waits outside of the much anticpated Shop, a new exhibition loacted inside of the Tenemant Museum in NYC.

It had been a few years since we last checked in with the terrific Tenement Museum in NYC; we'd gone twice in the late-aughts to what they now call the Sweatshop Workers tour. We took the trip with our kids and some out-of-town guests, and highly recommend it. But with the opening last month of an entirely new (but, you know… also entirely OLD) street-level space in the museum's historic Orchard Street building, we were intrigued enough to revisit this newly-financed, much-expanded NYC museum treasure. And, almost needless to say, we were glad we did.

A look at the Shop Life exhibit at the Tenemant Museum in New York City.

Lower East Side Museum Brings an Exhibition Steeped in Rich German History

The new Tenement Museum exhibition is called Shop Life, and the ground-level space in which you spend most of your 90-minute tour has been furnished and styled to recreate the German saloon that was opened here, in these exact same rooms, by immigrants John and Caroline Schneider in 1864. At the time, this stretch of the Lower East Side was known as Kleindeutschland, or Little Germany, and New York City as a whole had the third-largest German-speaking population in the world, trailing only Vienna and Berlin. The Schneiders, then, had plenty of potential customers, and their saloon was as much a place where a worker could quench his thirst and eat his fill as it was a community center, a gathering place for German civic organizations and brass bands, as well as a living room of sorts for neighborhood families, including women and children. This is all evoked rather well. 

A kitchen of the German Saloon in the new Shop Life museum. Complete with a smorgasbord of fake German food and sausage links hanging on the wall

Receive a History Lesson at Shop Life

Unlike our previous tours at this NYC Museum, there is no reenactor at Shop Life; no one in a John Schneider costume tending bar and answering questions about the room and its props. Rather, a Tenement Museum "educator" led the eight of us time-tourists in a group discussion about what daily life might have been like here at the saloon, for both the owners and customers, often putting the details into a larger, city-wide and historical context. And if it sometimes felt a little too much like school, with us students sitting in a row of chairs while our teacher lectured and asked leading, borderline-inane questions, we still left Shop Life feeling like we learned something new. 

a bedroom inside of a German Saloon from the late 1800's. Taken from the lower east side attraction of Shop Life at the Tenemant Museum

Shop Life Tour; One of Our New Favorite Lower East Side Attractions

The first three rooms of the Shop Life tour are one of the many things that makes this such an interesting Lower East Side attraction–the large bar area up front, the tiny kitchen in the middle, the Schneider's bedroom in the back–follow the usual Tenement Museum guidelines: historically accurate furnishings, tools, and accessories (including platters of fake weisswurst, brown bread, pigs feet, and the like); most everything displayed on a strictly "look don't touch" basis. The second part of the Shop Life tour, however–about 20 minutes or so–really deviates from the standard format. Here the Tenement Museum experiments with touch-screen technology, in the form of a giant table that reacts to items placed upon it with stories of and photographs from three other shops that inhabited the same space here at 97 Orchard after the saloon was closed and the neighborhood's Germans had moved on. Choose an item from some shelves, place it on your section of the table, and learn about the  kosher butcher shop that opened here from 1900 (just in time for the "kosher meat riots"); a 1930's auction house, and an undergarment store that operated all the way up until the 1970s. This is interesting and informative, and drives home the point that New York is a city that's constantly changing, but isn't nearly as effective a time-traveling tool as the refurbished rooms of the saloon.   

The gift shop of Shop Life. In the New York City Tenament Museum

Details About Shop Life at the Tenement Museum 

The Tenement Museum offers the Shop Life tour several times a day, as well as a half dozen other guided tours and discussions, at their 97 Orchard Street site, located just south of Delancey. The Tenement Museum box office and expanded book store and gift shop are on the corner of Orchard and Delancey. For more information about everything, including a complete schedule of tours as well as online advance ticketing, take a tour of the Tenement Museum website.

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