In a Historic Building, Your Feet Might as Well Be Jackhammers

 

In a Historic Building, Your Feet Might as Well Be Jackhammers

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Dave Favaloro, director of curatorial affairs at the Tenement Museum in New York City, had just arrived home from a long day at work one evening in late May when his phone buzzed with an email. A colleague was doing a final walkthrough of the museum’s renovated apartments at 97 Orchard Street, and sent Favaloro a question that hurled him into a slight panic. Had he noticed that a portion of the plaster ceiling had fallen to the floor?

He hadn’t, but it didn’t come as a total shock. The museum invites visitors to step inside the cramped quarters that immigrant families shared when they landed on Manhattan’s shores in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It’s a fairly old building, and its condition was never great—small and sweltering rooms, with nary a window let alone a breeze, and nothing built to last. Keeping the apartments both historically accurate and safe amid a steady march of foot traffic is constant work.

The museum had known about vulnerable spots for a while. Like many historic properties, the institution has to strike a balance between attracting visitors and shoring up its defenses against them. It’s a problem so common that, on UNESCO’s list of potential threats to heritage sites, visitation sits alongside more obvious perils like pollution. Of course, a museum exists so that people can visit it—that’s the very essence of its museum-ness. But when guests step back in time, they’re treading on fragile ground.