German Museum Educates
City Willkommens a New Museum
German-Americans easily make up the largest self-reporting ancestry in the U.S. census. Now they have a museum of their own.
The German-American Heritage Museum, located in Hockemeyer Hall a block from the Gallery Place-Chinatown Metro stop and operated by the German-American Heritage Foundation, opened earlier this month. The museum, mainly a long room on the foundation’s second level, aims to educate visitors about the influence of German immigrants in the United States.
Establishing Oct. 6 as German-American Day in 1987, President Ronald Reagan honored the contributions of German-Americans. “Few people have blended so completely into the multicultural tapestry of American society and yet have made such singular, political, social, scientific and cultural contributions to the growth and success of these United States as have Americans of German extraction,” he said.
The museum makes this point succinctly even before visitors enter the exhibit. Names of famous German-Americans, including Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, D.C. architect Adolf Cluss, singer Elvis Presley and dancer Fred Astaire, are painted on the stairs going up to the second floor.
The highlight of the exhibit is a colorful timeline stretching all the way across the longest wall and telling the story of 400 years of German-American history. It breaks out the more important trends with narratives on the wall. One looks at the “Muhlenberg legend,” the rumor among German-Americans that German was one vote short of becoming America’s official language. The story made German-American Frederick Muhlenberg, the first Speaker of the House, notorious for allegedly promoting German as the official language. Muhlenberg actually said, “The faster the Germans become Americans, the better it will be.”
German-American pride peaked around 1900, according to Rüdiger Lentz, executive director of the museum. Then, New York City was home to the third highest number of German speakers, behind Berlin and Vienna, he said, but that would change during World War I.
“You can’t have two identities if your country is at war with the country you’re coming from,” Lentz explained, adding that Germans became “super-American” during the war and lost some of their unique cultural identity.
Elsewhere in the exhibit are displays of books and music Germans brought to America (and that German-Americans brought back to Germany). Panels that will change every two months display information about German clubs in the U.S. and German-American families. A large room is available for events, and temporary exhibits, starting with one that focuses on Alaska in the fall, will also be showcased.
Lentz said he hopes the museum will operate less as a display for artifacts and more as an educational tool. Accordingly, he is working with the American Association of Teachers of German to bring students through the exhibit.
Eventually, visitors will be asked to participate in an oral history project. Two screens on the first floor of Hockemeyer Hall will take German-Americans through a list of 25 questions, and their answers will be recorded. Lentz said he hopes to make the responses available for all kinds of research and to include the video in the museum.
“The sky is the limit here,” he said.
The German-American Heritage Museum is open to the public every day except Monday. Its hours are 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday, 2 to 7 p.m. Wednesday, and noon to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Correction: March 29, 2010
The article misspelled Rüdiger Lentz’s first name.