Babaamaajimowinan (Telling of news in different places)

One Man's dream of a Museum of the American People

Sam Eskenazi still wants to tell the story of Americans, from the country's earliest inhabitants to its most recent immigrants, in the Museum of the American People, a new museum near the National Mall in Washington.

The former Holocaust Museum communications director has a vision for a place that tells the stories of the many waves of immigrants who formed this country. His vision unfolds in four chapters: The First Peoples Come (Pre-1607); The Nation Takes Form (1607-1820); The Great In-Gathering (1820-1924); and And Still They Come (1924-present).

Eskenazi's been working for the past few years trying to convince Congress to create a commission to study the establishment of the museum — which could cost up to $500 million — but it's been slow going. He's hopeful, however, that there's new momentum behind the effort.

"This country has the most amazing story of all, and this will be the first museum to tell that story," Eskenazi said during a visit to Washington last month to generate support for his idea.

U.S. Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) introduced a resolution in 2011 to create the museum, but it never came to a vote. Moran introduced a similar bill this past spring, this time with more than two dozen co-sponsors from Congress's many ethnic caucuses. Eskenazi has been working to secure the support of more co-sponsors in order to hit a "critical mass" of support for a hearing in the House Natural Resources Committee this spring.

There's also potential in attaching a resolution to create a museum study commission to an immigration reform bill, Eskenazi believes, since the museum will focus on so many Americans' immigration stories.

The museum could be situated at one of five available sites the National Capital Planning Commission and the National Park Service have offered up for potential cultural development. Eskenazi's preferred choice is the Banneker Overlook at the south end of L'Enfant Plaza. Other options include the Smithsonian's Arts & Industries building, the building that currently houses the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Forest Service office and the Liberty Loan site on Maine Avenue between 14th and 15th Streets SW.

Eskenazi disputes the notion that a museum dedicated to the history of the American people is redundant, even though there are museums that exist (the American History museum) or are being built (the National Museum of African American History) that would tell parts of the whole story.

"The National Museum of American History would be the only redundancy right now, and that's in a different context," he said. "This would be in the context of everyone coming here."

Eskenazi's pitch since the beginning has been that Smithsonian museums are "artifact-based," while this would be a true storytelling museum.

"The story will be dramatic and compelling. Everyone wants to see their own story," he said. "And international visitors would flock there as well to see how did everyone in the world come and make this country."

Eskenazi's own story typifies that of many second and third-generation immigrants. He grew up as part of a community in Seattle of Spanish-speaking Jews that emigrated to the U.S. from the island of Rhodes. He served in the U.S. Army in the 1960s before working a variety of public affairs and communications jobs in both the private and public sectors. He's retired from the U.S. Treasury Department in 2007 and now lives in New York.

He's also realistic about the fundraising challenge; he imagines approaching corporations, individuals or maybe even foreign governments for contributions. Eskenazi hasn't started fundraising in earnest yet, but he's put together a coalition of 155 organizations across the country that support his idea.

"We will definitely be seeking significant gifts in the $1 million to $10 million range, from both individuals and corporations," Eskenazi said.


Reader Comments(0)

Rendered 02/24/2024 14:05