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Two Museums

On my one full day off, I was absolutely determined to go to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, a world-class museum that is effectively the New York equivalent of the British Museum, the V&A and the National Gallery all rolled into one. I spent four hours thoroughly “doing” the Egyptian and Mesopotamian collections, by which time my feet were aching so much that I called it a day and gave the art gallery a miss. It’s somewhere I’ve wanted to go for years, and I was very pleased that I braved the subway, and the stiflingly hot walk from Lexington Avenue to Central Park, to get there.

Conversely, the Tenement Museum in New York was just a few blocks away from my hotel. On my last day, I had a free morning before I had to head off to the airport in the afternoon for my flight home. It was too far to head uptown to have another go around The Met, so I decided to stick to attractions very much closer to my hotel.

First, I wanted a decent breakfast. The hotel was undergoing renovations to its kitchen and restaurant, so there was no cooked breakfast available, just bagels, fruit and yoghurt. And for the last week of my stay, not even that – I had been grabbing a pastry from the 7-11 like a true New Yorker! So I asked the hotel where I could get a “proper” American breakfast, and ended up walking three blocks to an old-fashioned New York diner where I had a stack of blueberry pancakes with maple syrup. Yum!

Then I waddled three blocks in the other direction and got to the Tenement Museum just as it was opening. As you might guess from the name, it’s based in an old block of tenement flats – so old in fact that it is now the US equivalent of a Historic Listed Building. It is approximately five years older than my cottage!

Shockingly, the entrance fee was the same as for The Met. But whereas The Met’s ticket allowed three consecutive days’ access to world-class art and artefacts, the Tenement Museum allowed me a one hour guided tour of a single floor of the building, in the company of an “educator” who “engaged in conversation” with the punters about the people who used to live there. It was social history brought to life, but in an extremely didactic way.

It was moderately interesting, and the museum had clearly done some thorough research into the life of an immigrant Irish family who had lived in the tenement building for a few years. They had redecorated one of the (tiny) flats to be representative of how it might have looked when the family first moved in, around 1870. Surprisingly, to me at least, it was less of a slum than I had expected – at least at that date. Given the semi-derelict state of the un-renovated rooms, the building clearly went downhill over the next few decades.

The other thing that surprised me was when the “educator” said that many flats in New York were still much the same size as the one in the museum. That had a smallish living room, a tiny kitchen, and one small bedroom. There were renovated tenement blocks all over the Lower East Side neighbourhood, so I suppose that, give or take an indoor bathroom these days, the floor plans would be much the same. That explained why there were so many laundrettes around – at least one every few blocks – as I suppose the flats are just too small to make it worth having a washing machine.