Lisa J. here, reporting on my current project for the new permanent exhibit. Recently I have been working on an exhibit we’re calling “A Day in the Life Of…”, which offers visitors a peek into the lives of immigrants who lived in the 19th Ward of Chicago as well as the lives of the Hull-House residents.
“Residents” are what we call the middle to upper class women and men who lived at Hull-House and contributed to the work of the settlement by teaching classes, conducting research on neighborhood conditions, etc.
Jane Addams Memorial Collection, Department of Special Collections, The University Library, The University of Illinois at Chicago. JAMC 112.
The Hull-House settlement was a place where different social classes interacted on a regular basis, which makes this exhibit really fun to put together. Although the lives of immigrants (often called “neighbors” in Hull-House lingo) and residents were vastly different, their lives intersected at Hull-House: over a hot meal in the coffee house, around a work table in the ceramics studio, among basketballs and weights in the gymnasium, and within the library of the Hull mansion.
Jane Addams Memorial Collection, Department of Special Collections, The University Library, The University of Illinois at Chicago. JAMC 956.
There a number of challenges with this exhibit, however. One is that we don’t necessarily know exactly how particular residents and neighbors spent their days, which makes it hard to remain accurate while still giving an intimate picture of a person’s life. The other challenge is how to compare the lives of immigrants and reformers, including their class differences, without reducing their lives to a stereotype.
Though it is true that the daily lives of many immigrants were extremely difficult due to exploitation in the workplace and dangerous living conditions, that isn’t the only way to understand their lives. Immigrants are of course also producers of culture and knowledge and their passions, talents, and dreams must also be revealed to museum audiences.
Residents, too, have their own complex stories to tell. They lived among their immigrant neighbors, but they also had full time work, family, and friends in prominent social circles. Their successes (and failures) in passing through these two worlds can be difficult to convey.
Anyhow, I will report back on the exhibit once I work out a few more details. Onward!