The New Americans Museum in San Diego presents and preserves the stories of diverse immigrant experiences.
Dancer John Bosco (center) with visitors at the opening reception of the ‘Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation’ exhibit at the museum. Photograph by Jesse Arroyo
The New Americans Museum (NAM) in San Diego was established to promote understanding and interaction between newcomers and native-born Americans, while helping the new citizens connect with each other. Founded in 2001 by philanthropist and activist Deborah Szekely, the museum works to honor the multigenerational immigrant legacy through thought-provoking cultural and educational programming, curated exhibits and community initiatives. The Museum-Beyond-Walls initiative, for instance, is particularly significant. It involves taking NAM exhibits to the communities that may face challenges accessing the museum. This fall, as part of NAM Voices, 73 profiles of notable regional immigrants and their stories of inspiration will be shown in the local libraries of Logan Heights, and Linda Vista. “This institution strives to help all Americans realize that ‘new Americans’ can and do enrich our economy and culture in extraordinary ways,” says Linda Caballero Sotelo, the museum’s executive director.
Community outreach is an important aspect of the museum’s work. In addition to events, forums and educational programming, the museum also offers technical assistance training in creative and humanistic disciplines to support learning and build leadership skills in diverse communities.
“We plan our exhibits annually to present two complementary or thematic shows per quarter—a total of eight per year,” says Caballero Sotelo. “Our exhibits are sourced internally through a curatorial and programmatic committee selection by invitation; presenting a combination of traveling exhibitions, newly commissioned works and programming originated by NAM curator(s) and collaborators.”
Much of the museum’s outreach is aimed at diverse communities and young people. For example, it conducts an annual children’s citizenship ceremony, designed to be a civic engagement experience, in which over 100 children aged 1 to 18 years are sworn in as new Americans or U.S. citizens, while their families and other guests like local political leaders attend the events.
“We also conduct a microenterprise program in creative sectors, like sewing, knitting and jewelry making, in various low- to moderate-income communities to teach skills and provide technical assistance to immigrants and refugees,” says Caballero Sotelo.
The museum also has the Families History Program, created to instill cultural pride among youngsters whose families emigrated to the United States. “We conduct essay contests for high-school-age youth to document their or their families’ immigrant story through research, first person interviews and reflections,” says Caballero Sotelo. Submissions are reviewed in coordination with teachers and the school district and scored by a panel of distinguished judges. The top entries receive cash awards and all participants get an honorable mention.
Documenting the history of those who come to America is an important aspect of the museum. The Oral and Visual History Project is dedicated to ensuring that “individual stories are safeguarded in the Oral and Visual Histories archives as enduring testaments to our immigrant roots as a culture and a nation.”
“We believe, everyone has a story to tell. And the more we are able to add to the national narrative of America’s diversity, the more we build understanding and tolerance amongst all,” says Caballero Sotelo. A family may request its story be shared online or kept in the museum’s oral history archive. The project encourages the public to share their own or their family’s story to add to the museum’s growing archive of testimonials. The process to submit a story is simple and requires responding to question prompts and agreeing to be interviewed and recorded by museum staff or prescreened or trained volunteers.
The museum has a steady flow of visitors round the year, and they are encouraged to explore various questions around issues related to the immigrant experience. “Depending on the exhibits, people often have more questions on the immigrant narrative, express admiration and feelings of pride,” says Caballero Sotelo. “They are encouraged to open dialogues about inclusion, race, tolerance and diversity.”
The museum is free and open to the public, six days a week. The staff members have some advice on the must-sees. Besides the current exhibits, they say, visiting both galleries in Liberty Station as complementary thematic experiences would set the tone. “Visitors are also encouraged to book time in our recording studio to capture and preserve a family history or catch an artist talk,” says Timothy Allnutt, gallery attendant and graphic designer. She also recommends a standing guided docent-led tour.
“Visiting on an opening night reception is always a treat,” he says, “as there are guest speakers, an artist or curatorial ‘talk’.”
Paromita Pain is an assistant professor of Global Media Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno.