Reporter, photographer, author, lecturer and social reformer. Jacob A. Riis had many great talents and he and his work were praised by many. One of them was President Theodore Roosevelt who once described him as ‘America’s most useful citizen’.
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries he was known as one of the most influential journalists and social reformers. Now, Museum of Southwest Jutland has created an exciting new museum in Mr. Riis’ hometown in Denmark — inside the very building in which he grew up — which will both celebrate the life and legacy of Mr. Riis while simultaneously exploring the themes he famously wrote about and photographed — immigration, poverty, education and social reform.
We caught up with Flemming Just, Director of Museum of Southwest Jutland, after the opening of the museum to talk about Jacob A. Riis, his accomplishments and what the new museum brings to the table.
1) What importance does Jacob A. Riis have in today’s USA?
Jacob A. Riis is still remembered in New York through the Jacob Riis Park/The People’s Beach in the Rockaways, the Jacob Riis Settlement House in Queens, and Jacob Riis Houses in the East Village. There is also a Riis Park in Chicago. They are all expressions of his long-lasting deeds and achievements. He was one of the foremost fighters for better housing, living and working conditions. This is also the reason why it’s mandatory for all 8th graders in the State of New York to learn about Riis. His path-breaking book from 1890 [How the Other Half Lives] is still considered to be among the most important books in the US that changed public opinion and began the process of altering public policy. Other books with this status are Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Silent Spring.
Worldwide, he is considered a pioneer in documentary photography and his iconic photos are symbols of a new Progressive Era fighting the dysfunctions of the Gilded Age.
2) Why are Jacob A. Riis’ story and work still relevant today?
Riis’ work deals with immigration and integration, working conditions and children of the poor. Sadly enough, these issues are still too relevant and contemporary. By studying Riis, you see how they had similar discussions a century ago. And by taking a historical person, you more easily put contemporary society in a comparative perspective.
3) What does the new museum bring to the Jacob A. Riis legacy?
The museum is not a memorial but deals with how and why he became the most well-known social reformer. The museum gives the guests access to his most important photos and also important artefacts from his personal life. In the cinema, we will show a fantastic 22-minute long film and in the backyard we have created a New York slum styled to 1890. Of course, we also show some of his personal life: the museum has been, in fact, established in his childhood home and incorporates adjacent buildings.
4) What is your favorite thing about the museum?
His writing desk. We found it in Ashland, VA, where it belonged to a great grandchild. It symbolises his work as a reporter, author and lecturer. It also symbolises the connections between the US and Denmark as this furniture had belonged to Jacob A. Riis’ father and was made in Copenhagen in the 1840s.
In itself, the museum is a symbol of the old ties between our nations. We have established a fundraising organisation, Friends of Jacob A. Riis Museum, and have succeeded in attracting many donations, which is important as we do not receive public support for this new museum.
5) What can visitors expect of the Jacob A. Riis museum?
We really hope that many American tourists will visit the museum in old town Ribe, which is the oldest town in Scandinavia. The Americans will learn a lot about their own history and the background of many of the European immigrants who migrated to the US.
Ema Seferovic is the Press and Communications Intern at DenmarkInNY.