Ronan Gray, The Peninsula Beacon, Thursday June 25, 2008:
A tiny museum with big aspirations opened its doors to the public in Point Loma this past weekend. Seven years after Deborah Szekely founded the New Americans Museum, it finally has a place to call home at the NTC Promenade in Liberty Station. Intended to be a center to celebrate the contribution that immigrants – the New Americans - bring to the United States, the 4000 square foot museum will include a gallery, a learning center and a story-booth where visitors can record their own family’s immigration history. “Our mission is to be a catalyst to celebrate America,” says Szekely. “We aim to foster public awareness of the values and strengths that immigration bring to our commonwealth – their new energy, their values, their hard work”.
While relatively small compared to the larger museums of Balboa Park, the location of the New Americans Museum in the blossoming Arts and Culture district of Liberty Station allows it to host large groups, exhibitions, conferences and lectures. "We are lucky to have found a home at the NTC Promenade” says Executive Director Galye Hom, a third generation Chinese-American and daughter of the former San Diego Councilmember and State Assemblyman Tom Hom. “In addition to our administrative offices, exhibition gallery, community meeting/educational multi-purpose room, and intern/volunteer center, we also have access to a state-of-the-art conference center, event center, and beautiful outdoor venue." The outdoor space behind the museum is a patchwork of pathways, grass lawns and a large pond surrounded by palm trees. More than six-hundred guests, musicians and dancers found plenty of room to mingle there under a beautiful San Diego sunset during a special VIP Opening Preview on Friday June 20th. In its seven year history the organization has already hosted two seminars and one conference with over 500 attendees at other locations in San Diego.
The New Americans Museum Galley will feature immigrant related art. The opening exhibition includes a Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition titled “Becoming American: Teenagers & Immigration” that features the work of photographer Barbara Bernie. Bernie’s black and white photos of teenage immigrants to the United States include short captions with commentary by each subject. Also currently on exhibition in the gallery is “A Contemporary Story: Perspectives by Immigrant and Refugee Artists” a product of the work of a San Diego based non-profit called the AjA Project that runs an after-school program for local refugee youth. AjA is an acronym for "Auto-suficiencia juntada con apoyo" which translates from Spanish as “supporting self sufficiency” according to AjA Executive Director Sandra Ainslie. "AjA Project runs participatory photography programs for refugee youth that empower youth to think critically about their identities thereby helping them create better opportuniti4es for their futures", says Ainslie. The New Americans Museum Gallery currently features photography by some of San Diego’s immigrant and refugee children in that program.
The San Diego City Commission for Arts & Culture and the San Diego County Board of Supervisors both provided funding for the current exhibitions. The gallery, which is open between 11am and 5pm, Wednesdays to Sundays does not charge admission. Hom says that the museum does have some funding at the moment and plans to reach out to local community groups that share their mission to help bring other exhibitions and events to the museum. The gallery shows planned for the rest of the year include “The Alvarado Project : Through my Father’s Eyes”, a photographic exhibit by Filipino American Ricardo O. Alvarado and “Between Cultures : Children of Immigrants in America”, another Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition. Although none of the dates are finalized, Ho`m expects that the two exhibitions will make their respective debuts at the museum before the end of the year.
San Diego community interest also includes a possible collaboration with the Ethnic Studies Department at the University of San Diego. A proposal to use the museums recording studio to document the experience of some of San Diego’s Somalian refugees may come to fruition when the studio is ready later this year. The facility is located within a soundproof vault that may formerly have been used by military personnel when the building was part of the NTC Command Center. The soundproof feature may well prove to be indispensable during recordings as aircraft leaving Lindberg Field roar over the building on a regular interval, forcing a pause in conversations all over Point Loma that locals have euphemistically referred to as the “Point Loma Pause” for many years.
There are similar themed museums in France and Australia and one in the US in New York at Ellis Island. There are few places like San Diego though, where so many immigration-related topics co-exist in one place. Twenty miles south of the New Americans Museum, is San Ysidro, site of the busiest international border crossing in the world. The southwestern most point of the contiguous United States is just west of San Ysidro in Border Fields State Park where a series of stark metal girders rise out of surf and across the beach. It is the start of the controversial 10-foot-high welded steel border fence that stretches eastward from the Pacific Ocean for miles across much of San Diego’s South County. To the East of the Museum, neon lights mark the location of Native American Casions on the local tribal lands and symbolize a new transformation in the lives of the areas original natives that is both vast and contentious. Standing at the door of the museum at 2825 Dewey Road, parts of the bay that was once overflowing with the great tuna fishing fleets of Portuguese and Italian immigrants is visible. In the far distance this past Friday night, the orange light of the sunset reflected off the tops of the tallest buildings of San Diego City. In more recent years, refugees fleeing from poverty, economics and violence from places that include Somalia, Sudan, Colombia, Southeast Asia, Afghanistan and Iraq have made a fresh start here and now call San Diego home.
The fact the word “immigration” has become so synonymous with “illegal immigration” is one reason that the board of directors of the New Americans Museum voted to leave it out of the name, even though. Another sign that perhaps, a place to “celebrate the richness, that diversity brings to American” - as Hom puts it - is long overdue. The wealth of evidence that shows that richness in San Diego should keep this small museum a very interesting and a very busy venue for many years to come.For more information visit the website www.newamericansmuseum.org or call (619) 255 8908
Copyright Ronan Gray, 2008, 2009. All rights reserved. No reproduction without prior written permission.