Museum brings Italian immigrant experience to life

A couple of the Italian American Museum’s more than 2,000 artifacts. Photos by Lorenzo Ligato

BY LORENZO LIGATO  |  When I opened the door of the redbrick building at 155 Mulberry St., a small chorus of voices was filling the room, chanting in unison, “Viva L’Italia!”

A young woman holding a wooden tambourine with pairs of tiny metal jingles was surrounded by a cluster of children who vivaciously alternated Italian expressions with English.

On a chair sat Pino, a dark-haired, Italian-looking man with a round-backed, stringed instrument in his hands.

“This is an original Italian mandolino,” Pino told the kids, right before starting to pluck the strings with his fingertips. An upbeat tarantella session followed, with the children stepping and hopping in a circle.

It was a typical Saturday morning at the Italian American Museum in the heart of Little Italy.

“Today is a little bit chaotic, but it feels like home,” said Dr. Joseph V. Scelsa, president of the museum and professor emeritus at Queens College of CUNY.

The museum features a variety of programming, including tarantellas for children with Pino on the mandolino.

Navigating through the museum’s more than 2,000 artifacts is a real jump into the past of this historic Italian-American enclave. There are rusty sewing machines and black-and-white photos of Italian bakeries, folk costumes and life-sized marionettes. All the objects, Scelsa said, have been donated by Italian-Americans from across the country.

“Most items are linked to the immigrant experience,” he noted, “what the immigrants came with, what they found when they got here, what they needed for survival in this country.”

Scelsa was born in the Bronx to parents whose roots go back to Sicily, Naples and Calabria. He said the idea for an Italian-American-themed museum dawned on him after a four-month exhibition he co-arranged at the New-York Historical Society that ran from late 1999 to early 2000. The exhibit, “The Italians of New York: Five Centuries of Struggle and Achievement,” was “an extraordinary success,” he said, with a turnout of more than 100,000 visitors.

Scelsa — then dean of the Calandra Italian American Institute at Queens College — set his mind to opening a permanent museum dedicated to Italian-American heritage.

Founded in June 2001, the Italian American Museum was first housed in a CUNY building on 44th St. for several years. It was only in autumn 2008 that the museum moved into its current home, after arranging to buy the building on the corner of Mulberry and Grand Sts. for $9.4 million.

“This is the heart of where it all started,” said Kathleen Puglisi Costantini, the museum’s archivist. “This is where most Italian immigrants came first.”

The building itself represents one of the most important pieces of the city’s Italian-American legacy. It was formerly Banca Stabile, a bank that served Italian immigrants in Lower Manhattan.

Opened 1885 by Francesco Rosario Stabile, the bank remained in operation until 1932, becoming the “cornerstone of the financial community and the social community” of Little Italy, according to Scelsa.

The former bank building, he added, still maintains many of its original features, including the century-old marble walls, floors, vault, teller windows and light fixtures. In addition, the museum has preserved the bank’s adding machines, registers and several other documents and artifacts donated by the Stabile family.

“The fact that you come here and there’s still objects from the bank — it’s kind of a historic, living reminder that really shows how life was for the Italian immigrants,” Puglisi Costantini said.

In addition to its collection of yellowed bank documents and immigrants’ personal effects, the museum sponsors a range of educational activities, including photo exhibits, lectures, films, tarantella workshops and Saturday children’s programs.

The museum is in the process of expanding into two more lots at the site, with plans to eventually operate out of 10,000 square feet, featuring classrooms, additional galleries, a theater space and a gift shop.

Scelsa noted the obvious — that the neighborhood’s landscape and demographics have changed radically over the years. While the area’s Italian population peaked around 1910 at roughly 10,000, today Little Italy’s remaining Italian-American community has been dwarfed by the expansion of Chinatown.

“The Italians are gone — but that’s understandable. It’s America’s social mobility,” Scelsa said. “These were not the best living conditions, and as soon as they got some money, they started seeking for a better place to live.

“But this was the original Italian-American home and the largest one in the country,” he added. “It’s a historically significant place that we hope to preserve forever.”

The museum’s main purpose, Scelsa said, is to document the “the struggles of Italian-Americans, their achievements and their contributions” to American culture and society. The fourth-largest ethnic group in the nation today, Italian-Americans can easily lose their cultural roots and be swayed by “false stereotypes fostered by the media,” the museum’s president noted.

“The museum, then, serves as a point of reference for Italian-Americans to understand their identity and learn about their history and heritage,” he said.

Yet, the museum is not just for Italian-Americans and Italian tourists. With an annual attendance of roughly 4,500, people of every ethnic group and age come through its doors every day.

“The museum is important not only to Italian-Americans, but also to other immigrant groups to understand the immigrant experience,” Scelsa said. “They need to learn that it takes more than one generation and that they have to struggle. They need to know that the success that Italian-Americans have achieved today is based on many struggles.”