MANY Profile: Dr. Annie Polland, President, Tenement Museum
In January 2021, Dr. Annie Polland returned to the Tenement Museum as the institution’s President after previously serving as Executive Vice President of Programs and Interpretation at the Museum from 2009 to 2018, before becoming Executive Director of the American Jewish Historical Society. Polland replaces Dr. Morris J. Vogel, who served as the Museum interim President since October 2019. As EVP, Polland launched the Tenement Museum’s “Shop Life” and “Under One Roof” exhibitions which “infused cutting edge interactive projection technology into historically recreated spaces for the first time” and won the Museum the 2013 Multimedia Installations Muse award from the American Alliance of Museums. We spoke with Polland about her return and her future plans for the Tenement Museum.
Museum Association of New York: Congratulations on your return to the Tenement Museum and your new role!
Dr. Annie Polland: Thank you! Yes, it has been nice. It’s been a challenging time but there is something really nice about being back.
What makes the Tenement Museum a New York Museum?
I think it’s right in the heart of New Yorkers. New Yorkers care about their city’s history. Despite constant change –tearing down buildings and building new ones –New Yorkers feel connected to what came before. New York is almost 40% immigrant, so the immigrant story is the New York story.
Previously, you were the Tenement Museums’ Executive Vice President of Programs. What made you take the position of EVP when you started?
In 1998 I was a graduate student at Columbia working for a company called Big Onion Walking Tours and my first gig was to lead a tour of the Lower East Side. At that point, Big Onion Walking Tours had contracted with the Tenement Museum, so I picked up my first Tenement Museum group in April 1998 and gave them a tour of the neighborhood. That’s how I kind of fell in love with the idea of public history. The Tenement Museum’s idea of bringing history to visitors through the stories of ordinary people really captivate me.
In 2009 I began working with the Museum at Eldridge Street which is a National Historic Landmark on the Lower East Side just a few blocks away from the Tenement Museum. If I recall correctly, I was giving a tour of Eldridge Street Synagogue and someone from the Tenement Museum who had participated in the tour offered me a job. So in many ways, my transition to the Tenement Museum was an organic and natural extension of the storytelling that I had been doing in the neighborhood.
There are two things that I find fascinating about the Tenement Museum. One is that unlike most historic houses which kind of root themselves in one moment in time; the Tenement Museum features recreated apartments and family stories for many different time periods. You’re able to experience what it’s like to travel through time just by going from one apartment to another. Because these spaces relate to different moments in time, you have the opportunity to talk about different waves of immigrants who have come to the neighborhood over time. In the 1860s, when the tenement at 97 Orchard Street opened, its primary residents were of Irish and German background. By the time the building’s residential floors were condemned in 1935, 7000 people had called it home and the background of those residents shifts. That’s why we are able to tell the stories of multiple waves of immigrants, migrants, and refugees. With the opening of our second historic tenement at 103 Orchard Street, which remained a residence through the 20th century, we were able to extend that story closer to the present.
The Tenement Museum is as much about the thousands of people who lived at 97 and 103 Orchard Street as it is about the millions of visitors who’ve come since. That dual priority of having a responsibility to the past residents and having a responsibility to the people in front of you, catalyzes the importance of storytelling and really brings history to life.
What would you consider your greatest achievement during your time as EVP?
While there were several exhibits and programs launched during my time as EVP of Programs, I think the core of it all is the educator training. It’s the way that we work with educators to tell stories and the way we bring in scholars to help flesh out the stories that we tell. This professional development that was happening behind the scenes –connecting scholars and our educators together and being able to work on that dynamic –was the most important to me and is what I think is driving the vision forward.
What motivated you or what were the factors that motivated your return to the Tenement Museum?
The idea was floated to me at the very end of summer. I got a call from Morris Vogel who was serving as President. He actually caught me as I was on my way to work on a project on the Lower East Side with the American Jewish Historical Society –connecting sources with the buildings in the neighborhood. Just being on the Lower East Side that day, seeing all of the historic buildings and the vibrant street life, even though we’re in a pandemic, I started thinking about the renaissance that might come to New York once this crisis is behind us and the role that the Tenement Museum should play. Even as we go forward and rebuild we need to be rooted. I think all of that coming together that just stirred my blood–it’s in me, the Tenement Museum.
What was your first Museum job?
Well, if you consider New York City as a museum in itself… which I do, then my first job was working for Big Onion Walking Tours from 1998 to 2004.
What skills have you learned from your prior experiences that will be most helpful in your new role?
Listening. In the last year at the American Jewish Historical Society, we were working on a big oral history project where I listened to people and paid attention to how they told stories. It’s about how you listen — to the voices of the historians who help us understand the past and the residents who lived in the Tenement Museum’s buildings. Being able to soak this history up is one side of it. The other side is forming that into stories that are accessible, which is something that I’ve done since the very first day giving a walking tour, using an academic book about the Lower East Side and then interpreting it to your audience. Really immersing oneself in historical context and then thinking of ways to share that through stories that are accessible and relatable and inspiring to audiences.
What are you looking forward to in this position? What are some of your initial goals?
I’ve been going into the office, but I can’t wait to walk through our historic tenement building at 97 Orchard Street. I’m looking forward to walking up the stairs and hearing the conversations that will pour out of each apartment when it is safe for visitors to return.
At the same time, we’re experimenting with ways to present our tours virtually. The museum has done a great job of transforming some of our programs into a virtual format. So far, one of the best things that the museum has done in this process is capture the conversations that happen between an educator and visitor. [During the virtual tour] there is an educator leading while a secondary educator reads and responds to the live chat. The secondary educator is keeping the conversation going and we’re finding that people are really active in these chats.
We’re also trying to bring the building back into virtual programming by using 360-degree images that people will be able to navigate through. We want to make the virtual building tours more interactive to help visitors feel like they are in the building as much as possible.
How do you see the Tenement Museum’s virtual programming growing in 2021?
Usually, you’re on a tour with 15, 20, or 30 people. A group this size may obstruct your view. Now with virtual tours, visitors can really look at that hallway, look at that apartment, and see the scope of it. We’re trying to heighten the benefits of the virtual tour. Sometimes people just feel more comfortable in their homes, so they’re going to talk more, ask more questions. We’re designing these virtual tours with an eye towards continuing to offer them when we do reopen to onsite visitors. That way we can serve folks all over the world who might never have the chance to visit New York City. We’ve already had over one hundred students from Tennessee who went on a virtual tour program together. You could never fit one hundred school children in a 325 square foot apartment but you can through virtual. If there’s a silver lining to everything that’s happened in the past year, it’s been getting to rethink what we’re about, what’s our core mission, and what makes us unique, and then how do we extend that beyond the walls of the museum.
What are some of your ideas to create a sustainable financial model for the Tenement Museum?
Yes, another silver lining from the last year is the uptick we have seen in philanthropic giving. One of the things that has made the Tenement Museum successful over the years was our ability to fund 75% of our operating budget through earned income from ticket sales and our shop. What’s good about that is it shows that people want your experience. On the other hand, it also means that people see the number of our visitors and think we don’t need philanthropic support. So when the pandemic forced the museum to close, staff was furloughed and the survival of the museum was in question, we saw people really step up to support us. It’ll be our role going forward to grow and sustain that culture of giving, not just for the financial support, but to be able to connect with the community. Of course, we want to have as many tours as possible and have a large audience, but it’s interesting to think about what is that ideal balance between earned revenue and philanthropy?
I mentioned before that scholars like to come to the Tenement Museum and work with our educators. How can we build some kind of institute out of that so there’s a place for people learning public history to observe on site and foster conversations about what it means to be an American? Yes, we’re a museum of New York. Yes, we’re a museum of immigration. Yes, we’re a museum of the working class. But ultimately on a really good tour there are conversations where people are starting to appreciate the limitations and the opportunities of what it means to be an American in a different time, in a different context, and in a different moment.
Do you have any key mentors or someone who has deeply influenced you? Can you tell us about them?
My grandmother who was a teacher was a big influence. She really taught me about our family history and that made me feel grounded even when times were tough. Understanding the family history that I had through my grandmother and her storytelling made a real impact, especially in terms of the Tenement Museum.
Morris Vogel as well taught me so much. He had this ability to see things from 40,000 feet above and to really understand how an institution works. I’m very grateful to have had that opportunity to learn from him. Coming back now after being away and seeing how in a time of a pandemic he provided the scaffolding for many people in the museum to be leaders and to work together. That’s very inspiring.