By Maggie Richardson
Kevin Jennings, who received an M.A. in Education from Teachers College in 1994, was recently named the new President of the Tenement Museum located on the Lower East Side of New York City. Just a few of Jennings’ other significant accomplishments include working for the Obama administration in the U.S. Department of Education as the Assistant Deputy Secretary of the Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools. In addition, he founded and was the Executive Director of the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN), a national education organization dedicated to making schools safe for all students. Most recently, Jennings served as Executive Director of The Arcus Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to issues related to LGBT rights, social justice, and conservation.
Jennings expressed how his personal connection to the Tenement Museum inspired his recent professional change: “It is a combination of a general love of history, a specific love of this museum, and a desire to help craft a more positive narrative around immigrants and immigration in this country.” In particular, Jennings described his personal passion for the Tenement Museum’s mission: “Probably as a result of growing up poor and gay and in a multicultural family, I have a natural inclination towards the underdog.” Jennings connected his work in humanitarian efforts for the LGBTQ community to the Tenement Museum’s timely mission, especially with the recent national dialogue regarding immigration. “Immigrants are the new gays in America,” Jennings said. “I saw the Tenement Museum as having a very powerful and valuable role to play in educating people about the value of immigrants and immigration into our country.”
During his time at Teachers College, Jennings had a particular interest in studying the process of institutional change. He believes that the material he studied and the lessons he learned at TC are especially helpful in his new position: “We are in a period of massive change here at the museum. It is virtually an entire new leadership team. Three of the top five leaders are new, including me. And the world has changed dramatically around us over the last year to where the mission of our organization, which is about educating people about immigration, has suddenly become the hottest issue in America.”
Jennings also believes that the advancement of technology has brought about a great deal of change in the museum world. “I think the museum world is about to undergo a complete transformation. And I am not sure if everyone is ready for it,” Jennings said. “And the question is, who are going to be the museums who actually figure out and leverage technology to advance their mission, and who are going to be the museums who don’t figure it out and cease to exist?”
Jennings feels that the Tenement Museum has a unique opportunity to take advantage of new developments in technology: “I think that virtual reality and other similar forms of technology are actually very well suited to what we are seeking to do as a museum, which is to talk to people and tell them stories.” With the opening of a second building, the Tenement Museum will feature a new permanent exhibition entitled Under One Roof. Accompanying the physical exhibition space, the museum has created a virtual tour that features the stories of immigrants and migrants who lived in 103 Orchard Street in the decades after World War II.
The creation of this virtual tour was motivated in part by what Jennings described as a challenge of “site specificity”. The Tenement Museum has thus far only comprised a building located on 97 Orchard Street, which was abandoned in 1935. Therefore, the organization has only been able to embrace immigrant stories of that time period. “But the story of immigration did not end in 1935, it continued with new waves of people, Holocaust survivors, Puerto Ricans, Chinese coming to the neighborhood, and we wanted to bring our story up to the current day,” Jennings said. “Technology will enable us to tell many more stories than we can tell just by interpreting our historic site.”
In addition to the opportunity to expand the Tenement Museum’s offerings, Jennings also explained how utilizing technology presents an opportunity to expand their audience to include individuals who may never be able to travel to New York and visit their physical exhibition space. “The education we offer has never been needed more, the opportunity to take it outside of the four walls of our Tenement house and into people’s living rooms and classrooms has never been more possible than it is right now,” Jennings said. “My goal is that we are going to move from impacting hundreds of thousands of people to impacting millions of people.”
Utilizing new technological platforms to reach new audiences presented the opportunity to create an interactive component to the Tenement Museum’s offerings, Jennings explained. Their platform entitled Your Story, Our Story invites online visitors to upload images of objects that carry significance in their family’s history, in an effort to involve the public in telling America’s story of immigration. “I think the new generation expects a level of interactivity that perhaps my generation did not. Being able to give people a chance to interact with us more and not just be passive visitors is really important.”
While implementing technology presents opportunities for the Tenement Museum, Jennings acknowledged the challenges associated to utilizing new and unfamiliar technology: “We are going to have to rethink how we tell the story that is appropriate for this medium, because this is a different medium from walking people through the museum. I think that there will be some challenges in terms of figuring out how to tell our stories most effectively in this medium as opposed to the medium we have been using for thirty years.”
With consideration to the ever-changing nature of museum work, Jennings refers to hockey player Wayne Gretzky’s well known saying: “Skate to where the puck is going, not where it has been.” Jennings offers similar advice to ARAD students: “Don’t skate to the museum world of today, skate to the museum world of tomorrow.” In addition, Jennings believes that upcoming arts administrators should: “Become an expert in change management, because the world is changing all the time and at a faster and faster rate.”