Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Missouri History Museum Exhibitions Celebrate Immigrant Experience; St. Louis Is the Last Stop for Traveling Bilingual Display, 'Utopia.'

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Missouri History Museum Exhibitions Celebrate Immigrant Experience; St. Louis Is the Last Stop for Traveling Bilingual Display, 'Utopia.'

Article excerpt

Immigration has long been a point of contention among Americans. In her 1883 poem, "The New Colossus," Emma Lazarus optimistically portrayed the United States as a mecca for "your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free." Since 1903, the poem has had an honored place on a bronze plaque inside the Statue of Liberty.

But in his 1988 song "Dirty Blvd.," the late Lou Reed bitterly ascribed to what he called the "Statue of Bigotry" another attitude toward new arrivals: "Let's club 'em to death and get it over with, and just dump 'em on the boulevard."

With the White House and Congress struggling to find common ground on immigration reform, two new exhibitions at the Missouri History Museum promise to encourage fresh reflection on what it means to be an American, regardless of one's background.

"Utopia: Revisiting a German State in America" tells the story of 500 Germans who left their homeland in 1834 in the hope of establishing a democratic state in the United States, eventually settling in Missouri. The Giessen Emigration Society (named for the German town) was led by pastor Friedrich Muench and lawyer Paul Follenius, whose dream of freedom dictated that they break away from the repressive German regime.

For its St. Louis appearance, the traveling exhibition which features video, texts, photographs and other components is augmented by portraits of Muench and his wife, Louisa, from the Missouri History Museum's archives.

"The Missouri Immigrant Experience," a photography installation organized by the museum in collaboration with Missouri Immigrant and Refugee Advocates, focuses on the multicultural heritage that makes Missouri what it is.

"We have here two fascinating looks at immigration," said Jody Sowell, director of exhibitions and research at the museum. Whereas the 3,900-square-foot, bilingual "Utopia" exhibition "looks at German immigration at a set period of time," the 735-square-foot "Immigrant Experience" installation "expands that story, talks about other immigrant groups and brings that story right up to today.

"It just seemed a natural time for us to take a bigger look at immigration and its effects," Sowell said.

Organized by a collective of artists and intellectuals called the Traveling Summer Republic, "Utopia" has been on view in two German cities Giessen and Bremen and, in an abbreviated version, at the German-American Heritage Museum in Washington. St. Louis is the last stop.

The exhibition's itinerary echoes the journey of the Giessen Emigration Society, said Peter Roloff, co-director of the project. Their story intrigued him, he said not only in itself, but in its relevance to contemporary debates over immigration. The Giessen emigrants found themselves up against an "America for Americans" sentiment that survives today. Although the emigrants were unsuccessful in their efforts to establish their own state, they were undeterred from embracing American ideals, even going so far as to support anti-slavery efforts and fight on the Union side in the Civil War. …

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