The Filitalia International foundation is putting the finishing touches on an immigration museum that plans to open with a street festival on June 1.
After extensive remodeling of its headquarters at 1834 E. Passyunk Ave., the foundation is set to unveil the History of Italian Immigration Museum. “The vision is celebrating Italian roots and American dreams,” said museum chairman Michael Bonasera.
The museum will take up about 1,300 square feet on its first floor to showcase the Italian “Great Arrival” through exhibits documenting the Italian immigrant experience in Philadelphia and elsewhere.
“Many who came during the Great Arrival came from southern Italy and were very poor, and they brought only their skills on the boat ride,” Bonasera said. “You had peddlers and carpenters and barbers and leather cutters and tailors, and we want to bring in artifacts and the tools that they use to show the contributions they made.”
The museum builds on the foundation’s mission of promoting Italian heritage. Filatalia International, which is based at the Passyunk building, has chapters all over the U.S. and Canada, plus 12 in Italy, one in Switzerland and one in Germany. The foundation also renovated the basement, where it will hold the language classes it is mostly known for locally, and made the building handicapped accessible.
“We did start with humble beginnings,” Bonasera said. “We started in the basement. A lot of our displays were in my basement and mine is now empty.”
The museum begins the story with the exploration of the New World (Columbus, Verrazano, Vespucci), then moves to the early part of American history. Two signers of the Declaration of Independence had Italian heredity, Bonasera noted.
The museum includes a complete barber shop from 1960s with not only the equipment, like the baby chair, but also all the barber’s licenses from the city, plus his vanity and a trophy for winning a hair styling contest. Another exhibit features the story of one woman who came over on the Andrea Doria in 1954, two years before it sank. The passage cost 101,685 lira, Bonasera said.
The museum also will include a kitchen for cooking demonstrations, wine-pairing classes or other events. And they plan to start a genealogy center, a sort of oral history project to capture the stories of those who remember what it was like when they came over (or whose grandparents told them).
Going forward, Bonasera said, five Drexel students who are in a masters program in museum leadership are working on a strategic plan for the museum.
“It’s an amazing culture, and there are an amazing amount of contributions from Italian Americans,” he said. “We want to recognize all those who came through Ellis Island or even before and made a life for themselves.”
Once they’re finished setting up, we’ll stop in to take some pictures. Or, you could see it for yourself when they cut the ribbon June 1.
For more information on the museum or the scholarships, classes, exchange programs and other services the foundation offers, click here to go to the Filitalia International website.