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The Galata Museum recounts "Memories and migrations"

A new interactive, multi-media museum display in Genoa helps visitors put themselves in the shoes of immigrants

The history of emigration from and immigration to Italy is traced in a new museum display at the Galata Museum of the Sea in Genoa. Starting on 18 November, 1,200 square meters on the museum’s third floor will be home to the permanent exhibition "Memory and migrations" (Mem), the natural continuation of an experience that began in 2008 with the exhibition "La Merica!", visited by over half a million people over the course of three years.

The exhibition features 40 interactive stations. Visitors will follow in the footsteps of the 29 million Italians who left in search of a better life between 1800 and 1900 (and only a third of whom came back). More precisely, by collecting a passport, they take on the identity of a person – whether a celebrity or an ordinary Joe – who really did strike out for fortune abroad. Twenty biographies have been selected, but two million names can be searched in the archives thanks to a collaborative effort with CISEI, the International Study Centre on Italian Emigration in Genoa.

The narration begins in the mid-19th century, in the rural world, the source of most emigrants: a table in a country home displays “recruitment letters" sent by relatives abroad, along with photographs, cash, and travel tickets.

The departure is from Genoa, or a replica of the city as it was back then: from the gathering point at the Principe Station, emigrants moved to the Maritime Station for controls and to board the steamship, a replica of which includes sleeping berths, a first aid station, the cabin of the emigration commissioner, the hold, and the dining hall, all set to the sound of dialogues and monologues.

There are three destinations for three different historical periods: Argentina from 1860 to 1880, Brazil from 1880 to 1892, and the United States after 1892.

Immigrants to Argentina arrived at La Boca, the lively, colourful neighbourhood of choice for Ligurian émigrés;  the section features a soundtrack selected and digitized by Genoa’s Paganini Conservatory.

In the section dedicated to Brazil, a country that encouraged emigration - particularly to the state of Sao Paolo and after the abolition of slavery - visitors enter a wooden shack typical of coffee plantations. The Brazilian chapter in the history of Italian emigration remains little-known, in spite of the fact that over 20 million people of Italian descent currently live in that country.

The gateway to the USA was Ellis Island, “the isle of tears”, which currently houses the Ellis Island Immigration Museum, but which was once the province of psychometric testing, reading exams, and admittance interviews. 

The great Italian exodus came to a halt with World War One.  About forty years ago, in the 1970s, another story began: that of foreign immigration to Italy, documented by the Uliano Lucas’s photographs projected on the walls and the screening of "travel postcards” depicting foreign countries and immigrants.

The exhibition includes one of the first boats to arrive in Lampedusa this year on the heels of the “Arab Spring”: with its small size and modest appearance, it conveys the harshness and danger of these journeys of hope.

The section provocatively called “Who’s stealing our jobs?” , featuring self-produced videos, footage from Rai and photos by Giuliana Traverso’s Team Donna Fotografa, focuses on jobs and employment.

There follows a section on multi-ethnic schools, where the "new Italians" being educated, and a peek at immigrant cuisines (curated by Chef Kumalè, a.k.a.  Vittorio Castellani, a “ nomadic food journalist").

At the end of the visit, surveys and questionnaires based on official data allow visitors to assess their  knowledge on immigration and express their opinions. It is worth pointing out some facts and figures: the "other Italies" created by Italians abroad now have about 50 million descendents; in the last decade the share of  “legal” immigrants  as a percentage of the total Italian population jumped from 3% to 7% ; this year, 1,200 people died in shipwrecks while attempting to reach Italy’s shores, and about 10,000 died over the last 15 years.

The exhibition is curated by the scientific staff of the Museums of the Sea and Navigation (MuMa - Istituzione Musei del Mare e della Navigazione),  a permanent body of the Municipality of Genoa, and staged in collaboration with the Liguria Region and the Promotori Musei del Mare Association, with the support of the Compagnia di San Paolo. The project’s spirit can be summed up in one word: empathy. As Pierangelo Campodonico, curator and director of MuMa and Galata, explains: «We do not aim to create an encyclopaedia of immigration. Once again, in order to describe the sometimes dramatic phenomenon of journeys by land and by sea, in particular those undertaken by immigrants, we chose a personal point of view, an attempt to identify with those who have found themselves driven by necessity to tackle such a voyage...Ours is an invitation to put ourselves in the emigrants’ shoes”».
Emigrants in the port of Buenos Aires, 1912
Emigrants in the port of Buenos Aires, 1912

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