Museum in a House Showcases Italian-American Culture
Artists, speakers and exhibits on offer in Staten Island
If exhibits like “Dead or Alive” – a work at the Museum of Arts and Design made from bones, feathers, and other decaying objects – don’t strike your fancy, consider taking a trip across the Hudson River, past the Statue of Liberty, to a homier museum.
The Garibaldi Meucci Museum in Staten Island is, in fact, a house. Painted a crisp white, with warm blue shutters and a sprawling green lawn, it hosts more guests each year than any other house in the five boroughs. Built in 1840, it was once home to many famous Italians, such as inventor Antonio Meucci, and the Italian war hero Giuseppe Garibaldi.
Converted into a museum in 1956 by the Order of the Sons of Italy, it’s now a national landmark – and a popular gathering place for local Italian Americans.
“We are very proud of what we do, reaching out to the Italian American community,” said museum president John Dabenne.
Dabbene, president for the past 10 years, attributes much of the museum’s success to its location. While most Manhattanites and tourists refuse to cross bridge or tunnel to get here, locals come often enough to make up for that. “Staten Island,” Dabenne explained, “has the highest population of Italian Americans of any congressional district in New York.” Which makes the neighbors not only the best customers, but also the target audience.
The mission is to promote understanding of Italian-American heritage. Ara H. Merijian, a professor of Italian studies and art history at New York University, said: “Interest in Italian art at NYU may be more heightened than [at] any other university I have taught at. This is because the paintings and sculptures — more than in any other American city — are here for the looking.” The Garibaldi Meucci Museum caters to this by featuring art from every era, from the Renaissance to today.
It offers new artists, especially those of Italian heritage, a place to show their work. From February to May the museum featured Loren Ellis’s photographic exhibit, “Memories of Living in Italy.”
“Our board of directors thought Ellis’s work would be appropriate,” museum publicity director Bonnie McCourt said, “because she not only focused on Italy, but a variety of cities within the country as well.” Since the Roman Empire, Italy has been on the map as an inspiration for artists.
“The whole country is like an art piece to me,” Ellis said. Ellis’s art, while recently created, was inspired by five months she spent in Italy as an art student in 1974. She combined the two things she fell in love with there - painting and photography- to create a “photographic painting.”
Visitors praised her work. “One of her pieces has been sold, and those visitors who did not know of the exhibit prior to visiting the museum were very impressed,” McCourt said.
The major crowd pleasers are usually the famous pieces, such as Meucci’s invention - a voice communication system - and Garibaldi’s military uniform and guns. But supporters think it’s important to have a space for Italian American artists to display their work. Professor Merjian even believes that having this space is essential to the success of modern Italian art.
“Many Italian art movements have recently found renewed success and sales,” he said. “The contributions of singular, worthy artists have also emerged in the global market.”
The museum also offers Italian language classes, maintains an extensive book and film library and invites school groups to tour. A speakers’ bureau dispatches mostly retired teachers to schools, community groups, and senior and civic associations. “The most popular of our speeches is ‘Where Have You Gone Joe DiMaggio?’ Dabbene said. “It’s an in-depth look at the life of the great baseball legend.” Another popular topic is “A Secret Story,” which describes the U.S. government’s internment of Italians and Italian-Americans during World War II.
Some 30 to 40 percent of funding comes from the Sons of Italy, and the rest from grants. Since that wasn’t quite enough, Dabbene started a gift shop. “When kids would visit the museum they always wanted to take home a trinket or souvenir, “ he said. “Now the kids are able to spend a couple of dollars and take home something of the Italian nature.”
Sabrina Esposito studies journalism at New York University.