Museums: A Teutonic Shift?

tenner_march22_german.jpg

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The Washington Post's story of a the German-American Heritage Museum brought back an event I attended for students of high-school German years ago. It was in the neo-Baroque ballroom of Chicago's almost century-old Germania Club--on Goethe Street, of course. The building has been sold twice since the 1980s and is now considered endangered despite its standing in the National Register of Historic Places. A better photo is here. Starbucks has replaced the Bierstube, appropriately enough, since it was the German chemist Friedrich Runge who identified caffeine as the stimulant in coffee. (Yes, the Germans later invented decaf, too.) This scholarly article on German-Americans, Lincoln, and the Germania shows the origins of identity in memorializing the slain President, and its tenacity despite the two world wars.

German influence did not persist only in Chicago. A 2004 press release of the Census Bureau begins:

German Still Most Frequently Reported Ancestry
       
Nearly 43 million people -- about 1-in-6 U.S. residents -- identified their ancestry as German in Census 2000, the Census Bureau reported today. Other large ancestry groups were Irish (30.5 million), African-American (24.9 million), English (24.5 million) and Mexican (18.4 million).

Even now, despite budget cuts and increased competition from other languages, German is still taught in 14 percent of all American high schools -- a significant decline but still impressive, all things considered.

Is the German-American museum a sign of splintering of American identity? The Post reviewer, Marc Fisher, thinks so: "[W]hen each ethnic group creates its own museum, visitors are left without the tools to put each ethnicity's take on history in any useful context." That's a valid point. But it's also true that ethnic-sponsored museums are not so new. The Pennsylvania German Society dates from 1891. Harvard's Busch-Reisinger was founded as the Germanic Museum in 1903; though it focused on Old World high culture rather than German Americana, it was a flagship of cultural pride, endowed in part by the flamboyant Gilded Age master brewer Adolphus Busch. Stocked mainly with replicas of Central European art treasures, it was a citadel of ethnic pride.

Prizing stability, Germany has long both suspected and admired the fluidity of U.S. society. For ambitious Germans from Baron de Steuben (as he actually styled himself) to Adolphus Busch to Wernher von Braun, ours has been the land of self-reinvention. The Germania Club was itself a work of myth making, with its porcelain mural, helical columns and all. I can't wait to see the newest chapter in Washington.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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