(This was original from my old blog, Fall 2012)
I recently read Round-Trip to America: The Immigrates return to Europe 1880-1930. by Mark Wyman. His book is about the percentage of European immigrants who came to the United States to work, build a savings and return to their land of origin in order to achieve their dreams at home. His work, and works like his (the grandfather of this thought being Frank Thistelwaite) shatter the concept of American (US) excetionalism based on the United States’ immigrant foundations, or the idea that poor immigrants came to the United States because they thought it was the greatest place on earth because of “opportunity” and “freedom,” ect ect.
Wyman’s book says immigrants did not move to the United States to start their dreams lives, but rather came here to work, and went back home, because they liked it better there. What he does that is unique is allow the hole left by this new (I am using that word broadly ) concept to be filled with a new image- of the the European immigrant going back home with the United States with him/her. This is best explained in his concluding chapter “The American Trunk Comes Home.” Where he describes immigrant’s bringing home things both physical and mental to the benefit (some to the shegrin) of their home lands.
SO what we have here is Wyman allowing the US to still hold on to the idea that immigrants came to the US (no matter if they stayed ) and wanted the kind of lives they saw while stateside. Neo-exceptionalism?
What does this have to do with museums?
Ah yes, I think this would be a great exhibit! Say the National Hist Museum in DC. Get a few “America trunks” for display and explain the concept of “remigration”(as Wyman calls it), as wells as what migrants were taking back with them and what impact is had on their home lands. Maybe, tell the story of one man or woman, and follow their journey from their home land and back again. The exhibit could talk about work conditions, migration ,urbanism, , really nearly everything. (talking about everything would be a mess so choosing a few would work well.) I think this would be an excellent way to introduce the destruction of the US exceptionalism myth with a soft hand. I also think that telling the story of migrant workers throughout history might lessen the social and political prejudice against migrant workers from Central America.