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Mayor Fiorello La Guardia reading the Daily News election results in 1941.

Speech in Rome Italy
Background to the Establishment of The Italian American Museum

October 30, 2007

L'Italia Nel Mondo/Il Mondo in Italia
Convegno Museo Nazionale Delle Migrazione
26 ottobre 2007
Roma, Italia

Italian American Museum
Prof. Joseph V. Scelsa


On behalf of the Board of Directors of the Italian American Museum, we wish to thank Vice Minister Franco Danieli, Director General Adriano Benedetti and Prof. Lorenzo Prencipe, President of the Centro Studi Emigrazione Roma for organizing this conference and inviting us to participate in what we are sure will become an on-going discussion to our mutual benefit.

The Italian American Museum was born on June 12, 2001 when it was officially chartered under the aegis of the University of the State of New York, Education Department as a museum. The purposes of which are to establish and maintain a museum dedicated to the struggles and achievements of Italian Americans and their contributions to American society:

The aims and goals of the Italian American Museum are as follows:

  • To establish and maintain a museum dedicated to the struggles of Italian Americans and their achievements and contributions to American culture and society;
  • To collect, own, hold, preserve, exhibit, and interpret a collection of appropriate objects;
  • To gather and preserve memorabilia, reminiscences, oral histories, documents and other appropriate material in an archive and library;
  • To sponsor lectures, symposia, musical programs, film, festivals, theater, and art exhibitions; and
  • To raise public awareness and appreciation of the accomplishments and contributions of Italian Americans to the American way of life. (New York State Charter, June 12, 2001)
The Italian American Museum is a direct outgrowth of the extraordinary successful exhibition "The Italians of New York: Five Centuries of Struggle and Achievement" held in New York City at the prestigious New York Historical Society, commencing on October 12, 1999 (Columbus Day) through February 20, 2000. This landmark exhibition, for the first time, heralded the struggles and achievements of Italian Americans at a major American cultural institution. The New York Historical Society is the first museum to be established in New York City in 1804. This highly acclaimed and extremely successful exhibition was sponsored by the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute (Calandra Institute) of Queens College, one of the twenty constitute colleges which made up The City University of New York (CUNY). At that time, I was Professor and Dean of the Calandra Institute and now serve as Vice President of Queens College and Founding President of the Italian American Museum and I served as the principal organizer of the exhibition. The conceptualization for the Museum is a direct outgrowth of my vision and understanding of the need to have institutions within American society dedicated to the Italian American experience.

The origins of his philosophical approach which has been incorporated into the mission of the museum were derived from my doctoral dissertation at Columbia University on "Constructive Pluralism". The concept of "constructive pluralism" was originally exposed by American Sociologist, Robert J. Havighurst. The tenets of which can be defined as follows:
  • Mutual appreciation and understanding of every subculture by the other one.
  • Freedom for each sub-culture to practice its culture and socialize its children
  • Sharing by each group in the economic and civil life of the society.
  • Peaceful coexistence of diverse life styles, folkways, manners, language patterns religious beliefs and practices and family structure.
Italian Americans are a cognizable ethnic/racial group in American society meeting the four basic elements necessary to meet that criteria. First, it is perceived among Italian Americans that they are of a similar type and kind. Second, that they desire to preserve their type. Third, that they or their ancestors have had a common language and fourth, that they have a common cultural heritage which includes their own behaviors and attitudes. In order for any ethnic group in American society to fully participate in the cultural structure of the society, it is necessary for that group to have their own institutions dedicated to its preservation. I have devoted my entire professional life to that end, first establishing the Calandra Italian American Institute under the aegis of The City University of New York whose mission can be defined as seeking a better understanding through a sociological, political, and historical perspective of the Italian American experience utilizing research, education and teaching. The Calandra Institute is the first University Institute of its kind to have been established in any American university dedicated to that purpose. The Italian American Museum which was incubated at the Calandra Institute is now a freestanding museum under the aegis of the State University of New York dedicated to furthering that understanding through the tangible reminisces and exhibitions devoted to the Italian American experience.

The Italian American Museum thus is more then an immigration museum. It's purpose is to document the myriad of contributions made by the people of Italy and their descendants to the very fabric of American society from its earliest origins and its philosophical underpinning through philosophers, explorers, adventurers, industrialists, scientists, educators, politicians, and everyday extraordinary people, telling the whole story which continues to flourish and evolve in America today. Italian Americans are the fifth largest ethnic group in the United States of America today with distinct cultural values and traits which distinguishes them as a people within the greater multicultural American society. Thus, the museum serves as a point of reference for those who are Italian Americans and those who wish to learn about Italian Americans.

The Italian American Museum continues its affiliation with The City University of New York, the third largest public university in the United States, through its Calandra Italian American Institute at Queens College. In this capacity, the Museum and CUNY have agreed to jointly work together on activities of mutual interest and benefit.
Examples of such activities include:

  • Creation of internships at the Museum for CUNY students studying fine arts, museumology, history, anthropology, library science, etc.;
  • Preservation and interpretation of the Archives and other Museum collections
  • Development of educational material and programs for all levels such as lectures, seminars, musicals programs, film festivals, theater and art exhibitions;
  • Development of traveling exhibits to area schools and cultural institutions;
  • Creation of pre-doctoral dissertation and post-doctoral fellowships; as well as
  • Creation of faculty fellowship for specified areas as research and inquiry.
In addition to The City University of New York, Snug Harbor Cultural Center, an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution has put forth an expression of interest to affiliate with the Italian American Museum. Plans are being made to house the museum's Study Center in their newly renovated "Palazzo" overlooking their "Tuscan Gardens". Whereas, Snug Harbor is located in the borough of Staten Island which has the largest percentage of Italian Americans within the five boroughs of the City of New York (over 40%). This facility will allow the Museum access to a great number of students and researchers of Italian descent interested in exploring their Italian identity. The museum also plans to open satellite community offices in other boroughs. The first of which will be in the borough of Queens in the Italian Charities Building (1934). Both of these initiatives are planned for Winter 2007/08 and will serve to support the Italian American Museum's main facility which is to be located in the heart of New York City's Little Italy on corner of Grand and Mulberry Streets where the Museum has purchased three buildings which will serve as the Museum's flagship location. The historic significance of this location must be underscored as being the symbolic and spiritual home for the mass of Italian immigrants that came to America between 1880 and 1920.

The buildings themselves house the historic Stabile Bank which gave financial aid to the Italian immigrants when they arrived in America.
It was founded by Francesco Stabile in 1865, "Banca Stabile".

The Italian American Museum is continually approached by major cultural institutions throughout the United States, such as the Immigration Law Foundation in Washington DC, the Brooklyn Museum, the Museum of the City of New York and the San Diego Library in California, to loan artifacts and collaborate on exhibitions. The greatest difficulty that any cultural institution in the United States encounters, such as the Italian American Museum, is in obtaining the financial resources in order to make its vision a reality both in terms of operations and capital projects. To this end, the Italian American Museum has sought broad range support from the community at large, Italian American foundations and organizations, such as the Columbus Citizens Foundation, National Italian American Foundation, and UNICO National as well as American foundations and businesses interested in promoting its cultural activities. The museum has received operational funds and capital funds from New York City and New York State and is now approaching USA federal authorities with similar requests. In American institutions, development (fundraising) is an on-going activity. One which every museum must participate in even after an endowment has been achieved sufficient to fund its day to day operation on an on-going basis. We are proud to report that to date, the Italian American Museum has mounted over 30 exhibits since it began in 2001 (please see appendix A for a complete listing). We sincerely hope you will also be able to attend the grand opening of the new museum building when we open our doors next year.

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