A Museum for the Immigrants Who Make Up One America

 A Museum for the Immigrants Who Make Up One America

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WASHINGTON, D.C. --“Don’t we already have something like that?” This is the question Sam Eskenazi says he hears most often about his dream to build the National Museum of the American People. And his somewhat surprising answer is, “No.”

Eskenazi, who started drafting his proposal in 2007, envisions “a scholarly-driven” museum on or near the National Mall “to tell the stories of all the peoples who have come to this land.” Its motto would be America’s “E Pluribus Unum”-- “From Many We Are One.” Its mission is to document how America was populated during its distinct eras of immigration and internal migration from earliest times to the evolving present.

“The Smithsonian is one of the great institutions of our country, with some of the most spectacular artifacts in the world,” Eskenazi explains, citing perhaps the best-known American museum. But he sees his proposed museum as complimentary to the Smithsonian and similar institutions, serving a different role as a narrator of each people’s history, origins, arrival, movement, settlement and subsequent challenges in a new land.

His idea is not a novel one, Eskenazi says, but he is inspired by the success of the museums of America’s two neighbors, institutions devoted to the theme of their respective people’s origins. “Canada and Mexico both have major museums in their capitals that are each nation’s most visited museums,” Eskanzi notes. Therefore, he expects the coalition of over 126 organizations now supporting the initiative to continue growing as the project gains momentum.

Nguyen Ngoc Bich, for example, board chair of the National Congress of Vietnamese Americans, joined other backers at a February press conference calling for a commission to study the best strategy to bring the project to fruition. The Vietnamese, who started arriving in the United States in 1975 after the fall of Saigon, now, number 1.7 million and are the fourth largest community of Asian Americans, Bich explains.

Working for the establishment of the National Museum of the American People will not be Bich’s first big effort at educating the public about the Vietnamese experience in America. His organization contributed to the 2007 launch of “Exit Saigon, Enter Little Saigon,” an exhibit that last December concluded a successful four-year tour across the country as part of the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service. “It’s important for us to pass on to the Vietnamese American youth the consciousness about their heritage,” Bich says of the importance of the proposed museum.

New York’s Ellis Island or California’s Angel Island do not capture the story of Vietnamese Americans and other immigrant groups that followed previous immigrants that were processed in these sites. But representatives of America’s earlier immigrant groups also are enthusiastic about Eskenazi’s objective. His coalition includes Irish Americans, represented by the Ancient Order of Hiberians in America, and the German American Heritage Foundation, whose president, Thomas Siendenbuehl, said, “We Germans are very impatient, we couldn’t wait,” describing the German American Heritage Museum’s March 2010 opening in Washington. Despite German Americans having their own facility, Siendenbuehl says Eskenazi’s museum “is long overdue--you have to understand the many elements that form the union.”

Scottish Americans also see an opportunity to recount their legacy. Because of their relatively long presence as immigrants, the contributions of Scottish immigrants are often lost in the forest of early American history, explains Alan Bain of the American Scottish Foundation. “They’re not really recognized as Scottish, but as Americans,” Bain says. It’s an irony that today’s many immigrants would welcome. There are Armenians, Chinese, Koreans and Turkish Americans in the coalition. African American organizations are advocates, even with the National Museum of African American History due to open in 2015. The same goes for Native Americans, despite the existence of the National Museum of the American Indian, and Latino supporters, though there is an ongoing effort to get Congressional funding for the National Museum of the American Latino.

Eskenazi’s current focus is to forge a bipartisan Congressional coalition to introduce a resolution in May for setting up the Presidential commission. He will appeal to what he estimates as “more than 40 minority caucuses” in Congress. There are five potential locations for the museum--which would include bookstores and restaurants--including the [Benjamin] Banneker Overlook, a five-acre site that could dovetail with the D.C. government’s plans for a major anchor attraction to draw tourists to the city’s now undeveloped waterfront near the National Mall.

As to the museum becoming a part of the Smithsonian, Eskenazi would leave that matter to the commission. If the federal government donates a site, Eskenazi believes that foreign governments would be the primary funders of the construction costs, estimated at $500 million. He hopes the project will engage someone with the “stature of a Colin Powell or a Madeline Albright” to spearhead funding solicitations to other countries.

The retired Eskenazi spent six years as director of public information at the Holocaust Museum before its opening and two years afterwards. That experience informs his vision of a similar documentary filmmaker’s approach that will convey the great American narrative. With the museum’s genealogical center, permanent collections, traveling exhibits and other offerings, Eskenazi expects droves of American schoolchildren and foreign tourists to descend on the nation’s capital. “Everyone is going to want to come," he said, "and see their story and learn about others.”