New York’s Ellis Island Museum pays tribute to the millions of emigrants who sailed into New York harbor in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in search of a better life. The largest group of soon-to-be expats came from Italy; their exodus created one the greatest diasporas in human history.
A recently opened museum in Genoa, MEI (the National Museum of Italian Emigration), now serves as a spiritual cousin to the Ellis Island site by looking at expatriation from the perspective of departure. MEI provides a compelling overview of the Italian peninsula’s migration history, not only during the peak years of the 19th and 20th centuries, but also from prehistoric times to the present. Additionally, the museum details migration within Italy, when Italians, in large numbers starting in the 1950s, moved from the countryside to cities, and from South to North in search of work.
While MEI delves deeply into the past, it is very much a 21st-century creation with three floors of multimedia installations, displays and interactive stations. “All the collection are digitized,” says Giorgia Barzetti, co-curator (with Nicla Buonasorte) for MEI. “The original documents are not in the museum, but spread [out] in Italian and international archives, museums or research centers.”
Genoa, like Naples, Palermo and Trieste, was a key embarkation point for those leaving the country (not only for the U.S., but also to other destinations including Brazil, Argentina, Africa and Australia), one reason the museum was established here. Another plus was the fact that Genoa had already committed to the cultural study of Italian migration with a special section devoted to it at its Galata Maritime Museum.
The museum site has special resonance too. It is located in the Commenda di San Giovanni di Prè, a medieval ecclesiastical and former hospital complex dating from 1180 that once served as a way station for religious pilgrims making their own long-distance journeys by sea to the Holy Land.
One of the first thematic sections, on the museum’s ground floor, underscores how migration has always been a fundamental human activity, and traces the Italian peninsula’s earliest population movements, the subsequent nomadic routes of early sailors and herders, and later the peregrinations of merchants, artisans and artists to points beyond.
In 1880, roughly two decades after the country’s unification, the first mass exodus from Italy began. The museum tells the personal experiences of over 200 Italians who left their homeland (from the late 19th century to the present) to seek new lives through a collection of personal artifacts, diaries, photos, letters, newspaper clippings and videos.
One intriguing section called The Maze lets visitors experience through an interactive installation what migrants faced in a new country as they navigated immigration interviews and searched for work and housing. (Try it in a language you’re not too proficient in to get a sense of the chronic frustrations newcomers to any country have to endure.)
In the memorial section a special installation pays tribute to the worst moments of the Italian emigration experience like the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in New York in 1911 that killed 146 Italian and Jewish workers, and numerous other tragedies such as the sinking of the steamship Oncle Joseph in 1880 with 320 lives lost.
The museum examines the particulars of the country’s internal migrations, for example, the impact on population movement when the old mezzadria (share-cropping) systems broke up. There’s also a section that discusses contemporary departures with the advent of the EU and global mobility.
Some studies estimate that 80 million people throughout the world can claim Italian ancestry today. Census.gov puts the number of Americans with Italian heritage at close to 16 million. At MEI, as with Ellis Island, you can search ancestral records, here at a special digitized kiosk with a database and archive organized by CISEI, the International Center for Studies on Italian Emigration. (You can also use the CISEI database online. I was thrilled to find my great-grandfather on the first try.)
In August, the NIAF ( National Italian American Foundation) announced a partnership with Genoa and a number of its cultural organizations, including MEI, to further promote cultural ties between Italian communities in the U.S. and the city.