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Italy: a museum to understand emigration

For the first time, the Italian State is dedicating a museum, the Museo dell’emigrazione italiana (MEI), to the very many emigrants who, from the 19e century, left the country to embark on a better life. On the occasion of its inauguration on May 11, 2022, the artist Simon Clavière-Schiele, who lives in Genoa, looks back on its genesis.

Italian emigration is undoubtedly the best known and most emblematic of the great European migratory movements. In total, more than 30 million Italians have left their country to settle abroad since the mid-nineteenth century.e century. About a third of them have returned to their country of origin, the others having given rise to one of the largest diasporas in the world. In France alone, it represents more than four million descendants.

Italy, for years, had the desire to mark the occasion. Several symbol cities were in the running to host the Museo dell’emigrazione italiana (MEI), notably Naples and Palermo, but it was ultimately a city in the north, Genoa, which was chosen. A choice that is not necessarily very easy to interpret at first glance as the South remains, in the collective imagination, the place from which most Italian immigrants come. In reality, if southern Italy has greatly contributed to swelling the “battalions” of emigrants, it is from these northern regions that the majority of candidates for departure come from.

Genoa was also one of the main ports of departure for transatlantic liners and the MEI, a former Templar commandery – starting point for Crusaders who came from all over Europe to embark for Palestine in the Middle Ages –, n t is only a few meters from the terminals where you could set sail for the United States, Australia, Argentina, Brazil…

This magnificent medieval building from the 12the 2800 m century2 has been completely renovated and offers 16 modules through which visitors can explore various “stories” of emigration relating, for the most part, to modern and contemporary times through installations, projections and archives. Beyond the description of the great flows, a focus on individuals is proposed through virtual meetings with migrants who tell their journeys, the reasons for their departure, the dreams that animated them.

The museum is also at the heart of a cosmopolitan district whose main axis is Via Prè: a street that has always been, since the second half of XXe century, inhabited by immigrants first Sicilian, then Neapolitan, North African and finally Senegalese. And a street which for centuries has benefited from its proximity to the port to develop a commercial fabric made up of workshops, shops and restaurants, and which is trying to be reborn today after a deep economic crisis and a explosion of drug trafficking have violently impacted it, forcing many businesses to close.

The Museum is therefore both a place of memory and a bet on the future. The leaders who are also at the head of the Museum of the Sea and Migrations (MUMA), located 200 meters from the MEI, have decided to articulate the two sites and enrich the department dedicated to immigration to Italy within MUMA, rooms that have been open for a few years and are dedicated to the various waves of immigration that Italy has experienced, especially in recent decades.

This dialogue between emigration and immigration at the heart of the same museum complex is not insignificant. Indeed, the synergy that enabled this project to be completed in record time stems from a collaboration between a Ministry of Culture headed by a left-wing minister, Dario Franceschini, and a municipality of Genoa in the hands of a right-wing mayor, Marco Bucci.

Of course, the left is not the only promoter of cultural actions that highlight the problems of reception and the right does not have the monopoly of tributes paid to Italians who have left to try their luck abroad. However, it has probably not escaped those in charge of the project that it would be easier to mobilize the various Italian institutions and potential sources of funding by broadening the spectrum of the missions of this pair é and i (m)migration and its chances to resonate both with a curious and open public and in the hearts of families seeking recognition of their history.

The target audience is Italian but also from the Italian diasporas: the museum is located 100 meters from Genoa station and less than 500 meters from the terminals of cruise ships whose companies Costa, MSC and Carnival intend to fill cabins with descendants of Uruguayan, Canadian, English Italians… to discover their origins. A standard business in perspective if we consider the current craze for genealogy on the internet and the explosion of the trade in DNA tests in countries where these genetic analyses, sometimes capable of going back to the region or even the place of birth of the ancestors, are legal .

However, visitors will have to take Via Prè if they want to get to the city center. However, this seems complicated for the time being as the street is frequented by drug traffickers and consumers. Crack dealers who, as in Paris, are mostly from sub-Saharan Africa and are partly ruining the efforts of a Senegalese community that has been established in the neighborhood for more than forty years. This social situation is likely to tarnish for some time yet the postcard that the government and local authorities dream of offering visitors, that of a port that would have been able to both support candidates for departure and welcome newcomers.

This bet to establish a museum – cornerstone of a history of Italian immigration sometimes synonymous with pain, poverty, sacrifice and discrimination in a difficult neighborhood where many immigrants live – is all the more complex and ambitious. that it deserves to be hailed and noted.

Indeed, the choice of this site seems to want to combine the solemnity of an unprecedented national tribute with the desire to assume before Europe and the world the face of a new Italian society, capable of looking itself in the face and taking one of the greatest challenges of the contemporary era and which was at the origin of Italian emigration: that of demography.

The illustration is based on a 90×90 cm silk print by Simon Clavière-Schiele which is exhibited at the MEI and is entitled Imbarco 2022.

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