‘Sites of Conscience’ Get Boost From Libeskind, Parley

By Ami Eden

Published July 25, 2003, issue of July 25, 2003.
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A little-known coalition of museums is poised to get a big boost this week, with an unprecedented international conference and an unexpected appearance by star architect Daniel Libeskind.

Since its founding four years ago, the International Coalition of Historic Site Museums of Conscience has received little attention. This week, however, the coalition’s public profile could rise when caretakers of 14 participating sites gather in New York’s Westchester County for what is being billed as a groundbreaking meeting with representatives of human rights organizations. The goal in both camps is to create a blueprint for transforming historic site museums into activist institutions dedicated primarily to tackling “pressing social issues” and promoting “humanitarian and democratic values.”

The brainchild of Ruth Abram, founder and president of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, the coalition has attracted the attention of Daniel Libeskind, the man chosen in March to design the reconstructed World Trade Center site. A source familiar with this week’s conference said that the celebrated architect had requested a chance to meet with the coalition, and organizers were more than happy to accommodate him.

Libeskind could not be reached for comment. A spokeswoman for the museum declined to discuss the details of his appearance and said it would be closed to the press.

As the man charged with running what is probably the costliest and most watched effort ever to create a living historical site, Libeskind seems an obvious choice to address the coalition, which is being funded by several non-profit groups, including the Ford Foundation and the Open Society Institute. Libeskind’s appearance makes even more sense given his immigrant-makes-good personna and the lead role played by the Tenement Museum in creating the coalition. But the timing of Libeskind’s appearance and his well-crafted public image raise complicated questions about the Tenement Museum, the coalition and the general goal of infusing site museums with a heavy dose of social conscience.

For officials at the Tenement Museum, the easy part of their job has been getting visitors to celebrate the popular immigrant narrative of struggle and triumph. The trickier task has been conveying the fuller, darker picture of the economic injustices faced by successive generations of newcomers throughout the past century up until today. And even with a greater understanding of these hardships, it is often easy to think of early 20th-century immigrants to America as lucky — if for no other reason than because they were spared the fate of friends and family who ended up in Soviet gulags and Nazi concentration camps.

But now, through its membership in the museum coalition, the Tenement Museum seems to be widening its focus by aligning itself with a Stalinist labor camp in Russia and a Holocaust transit center in the Czech Republic, as well as an anti-apartheid museum in South Africa and an initiative focused on human rights abuses in Argentina. The coalition also includes other sites in the United States, including the Chinese American National Museum in Los Angeles, the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site in Atlanta and the Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site in Hyde Park, N.Y.

Right now, as the museum coalition is poised to move forward with its new, broadened agenda, Libeskind is under pressure to pare down his wide vision for the trade center site. He is fresh off a very public, failed power struggle with Larry Silverstein, the developer who purchased the lease on the Twin Towers just weeks before the September 11 attacks. Silverstein has been pushing for changes to Libeskind’s winning design, including moving the 1,776-foot main tower closer to the site’s transportation hub. Under an agreement brokered by a representative of New York Governor George Pataki, Libeskind will in effect report to Silverstein’s handpicked architect, David Childs, on issues related to the construction of the site’s main tower.

Members of the media and other observers have cast the arrangement as a worrisome victory for commercial interests over artistic vision and historical memory, while other have rejected this theory as simplistic. Still, the outcome could be interpreted as a symbolic defeat for the agenda of the museum coalition meeting in New York this week. Many museums could face similar commercial challenges while attempting to pursue more controversial missions.

Libeskind also embodies a major dilemma facing the Tenement Museum in particular, as it attempts to transform nostalgic feelings toward previous waves of immigrants into a greater concern for those who have only recently come to the United States. To the degree that the Tenement Museum seeks to strengthen society’s romantic view of immigrants, Libeskind is an almost-perfect poster-child. At the same time, his story — a seamless intellectual journey from the boat to professional ascension — is the sort of glorified narrative that hampers efforts to focus attention on what activists view as systemic economic injustices faced by immigrants of all eras.

Tenement museum officials said the formation of the coalition is providing them with an opportunity to become more explicit about their institution’s social mission. For example, the museum’s official Web site only hints at larger social issues confronting immigrants, while the description of the museum on the coalition’s Web site declares: “Here, generations of newcomers have toiled in sweatshops, struggled against poverty and racism, built thriving communities, and redefined American culture.”

The coalition site lists the Tenement Museum alongside institutions dealing with atrocities that took place in other countries, under headings such as “Racism: Where Have People Faced Similar Issues in the Past?” Visitors to the coalition’s Web site are also directed to organizations that deal with these issues in the United States.

Despite such associations and categorizations, Abram said that the gloomy makeup of the coalition was not meant to signal any parallels between the suffering of American immigrants and the victims of totalitarian regimes. “The issue of immigration is an unresolved one,” Abram said. “That’s what all these historic sites have in common — they all tell a story that contains some aspect which still remains an issue in society.”

The coalition’s objectives drew mixed reviews from historians who have advised the Tenement Museum. Hasia Diner, a Jewish history professor at New York University, offered mostly support for the notion that museums should attempt to address contemporary problems. She said it was important for visitors to the Tenement Museum to learn about an era when government played no role in providing a social safety net, especially at a time when the Bush administration seems “bent on eliminating the state’s role.”

Others raised concerns about expecting museums to serve as voices of moral authority. “I’m not sure whether that ought to be the role of the museum,” said Jenna Weissman Joselit, a Forward columnist and visiting professor of American studies at Princeton University who advised the Tenement Museum when it first opened. “You have to be balanced, and harnessing history for political ends doesn’t neatly follow.”

Abram said her initial impetus to reach out to other museums stemmed from her frustrating attempts to secure charitable grants. Foundation officials were reluctant to dole out aid because the museum’s hybrid mission of exploring history and running support programs for modern-day immigrants could not be easily categorized, Abram said. So she sent out a letter to other museums, in search of other caretakers who see “history as a tool for the living and use their historic sites as a place for dialogue” on contemporary issues. The thinking was that by identifying likeminded site museums, Abram could make a better case for foundation funding.

Officials at eight sites responded to her letter, and Abram was able to secure a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to bring officials from those museums together for a meeting in Italy. “When we met that first night, we were all pretty stunned to learn that we did not come from museum backgrounds,” Abram recalled. “We came from activist backgrounds and saw museums as instruments of social change. We had found our group.”

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