More than six years after receiving its charter from the state, New York’s Italian American Museum — spearheaded by Queens College’s Joseph Scelsa — is celebrating its new home in Little Italy.
Scelsa closed on three buildings located on Grand Street in Manhattan. The main building sits on the corner of Grand and Mulberry streets, putting it right in the center of the city’s famous enclave of Italian culture.
“This is the absolute perfect place for us to be,” Scelsa said, adding that many of the nation’s first Italian immigrants settled in what we now know as Little Italy. And though many of them have migrated from the area in recent years, it is still a heavily trafficked area, especially during Italian celebrations like the Feast of San Gennaro.
In fact, Scelsa said many Italian-Americans — who account for about 10 percent of the city’s population — now live in Queens, as newer generations have since moved to the outer boroughs.
But Scelsa worries that too few know their history, which means there are still fewer who can pass it on to future generations. “If you’re not told the story yourselves, you’re often left to others telling it their way,” he said.
The initial idea for the museum was born out of the concept of constructive pluralism, which Scelsa describes as learning about one’s own culture in order to develop the tools necessary to share it with others.
Scelsa wrote his doctoral dissertation on the concept. He received his degree in sociology and education from Columbia University. By 1984, he became director of the City University of New York’s Italian American Institute. The institute was later renamed in honor of former Sen. John Calandra, who helped advance the efforts of Italian-Americans in New York City.
Scelsa became dean of the program, and through it, was able to organize a major exhibition at the New York Historical Society. “The Italians of New York: five centuries of struggle and achievement” attracted so much attention that the idea to create a permanent place to exhibit the historical and cultural artifacts of Italian-Americans seriously began to take shape.
A year later, in 2001, the state’s Board of Regents granted a provisional charter for the creation of the Italian American Museum. Around the same time, Scelsa, who had been teaching courses in Italian-American studies, moved to Queens College, where he became acting vice president for Institutional Development.
After extensive fundraising, the museum opened on the 7th floor of an office building on W. 44th Street. And now, after years of eyeing a spot in Little Italy, the museum is getting ready to move to its new location, and will open to the public in mid-May.
Scelsa is thrilled about the move, and confident the new location will further the museum’s mission of preserving and sharing Italian and Italian-American culture. “We have everything from sewing machines, to wine pressers, to barber tools to shovels that were used to dig the New York City subways,” he said. And there are even more items in storage — including, among other things, elaborate Sicilian carts and marionettes.
Exhibits organized by the Italian American Museum also help shed light on some of the forgotten or lesser-known aspects of Italian history, like “Prisoners In Our Own Home,” which chronicles the internment of Italian-Americans during World War II. “It’s a story that’s not often told,” Scelsa noted. “But it’s a part of American history.”
Currently the vice president of Outreach and Cultural Affairs at Queens College, he said the Italian American Museum has always worked hand-in-hand with the university system, and will continue that partnership.
He expects the museum will also continue developing exhibits beyond New York City. The museum also sponsors festivals, lectures and travel programs throughout the year.
Scelsa said an exhibition on the Feast of San Gennaro is currently in the works. Although it is a religious celebration in origin, over the years, the festival has become a more widespread cultural celebration. The goal of the exhibit is to offer information on the festival’s origins and evolution.
The Feast of San Gennaro, held each September, is of particular importance to Little Italy. Scelsa estimated that approximately one-and-a-half million people pass through the neighborhood during the festival. And with a new location right at the heart of the action, he is optimistic about the museum’s role in the neighborhood:
“We feel that we’re going to be able to serve as a secular cathedral for this community that doesn’t really have one,” he said.
To find out more about the Italian American Museum or to donate to its cause, visit www.italianamericanmuseum.org, or call (212) 642-2020. The museum will host a gala and annual fundraiser on April 25. Call the museum for more details.