My Own True Love and I might well have stopped at the German-American Heritage Center and Museum in Davenport, Iowa, for its building alone. The museum is housed in a building that was originally the “Germania”, a Gast Haus for German immigrants. Built in 1870, the Germania was one of the earliest of many immigrant hotels built in the area at the end of the nineteenth century and the last one still standing. It has been beautifully restored and adapted as a museum. We are suckers for old buildings and this kind of thing is jam for our morning toast.*
In some ways, the building itself is the largest exhibit in the museum:** an emblem for the experience of German immigrants that the museum as a whole explores.
The museum was well worth the stop. The main exhibit of the museum traces German history from 9 C.E. through World War II in short clear bites.*** It explains why big waves of immigrant occurred.**** It describes what the journey was like and what immigrants found when they got here. An entire room is devoted to German-American culture in Davenport, as a lens for German immigrant culture in America as a whole. The final section explains what happened to that culture when the United States entered World War I in April, 1917. (The short version? Erasure)
One thing the museum does particularly well is give immigration a face. For a part of the exhibit called “The Passport Experience,” visitors can chose an immigrant, represented by a card with a photograph, demographic details and a QR code, and follow them through a number of stations throughout the exhibit.***** Another feature, called “Step into my Shoes,” allowed visitors to trigger short films in which individual immigrants talk about their experiences by stepping into one of several sets of footprints on the floor.
The museum also included two smaller, thought-provoking exhibits.
The first, called “Hidden Hapsburgs,” looked at citizens of the Austro-Hungarian Empire who emigrated alongside a number of Germans after the uprisings that shook Europe in 1848. Because most of them were German speakers, they are often treated as Germans when people write about the immigrants of 1848, but their experience was different in several important ways. Most notably, the Austro-Hungarian revolutionaries were pardoned in 1867 and had the opportunity to return home. The German revolutionaries were never pardoned. This exhibit was a real head smack for me. I was familiar with a great deal of the material in the main exhibit, but had never thought about Austro-Hungarian revolutionaries.
The second exhibit looked at the experience of immigrants to the Davenport area today and compares it to the experience of German immigrants in the nineteenth century. This exhibit centers on the work of a non-for-profit called Tapestry Farms.
Different in some ways. Alike in so many others.
*If you’re in Davenport and noticed a tall gray-haired man and a short red-haired woman walking around an unusual old building for no apparent reason or bending over to look at a sandstone foundation, it was probably us.
**Though obviously it wasn’t in the museum. Because that would require space to loop in on itself in a way possible only in a Terry Pratchett novel.
***Why 9 C.E. you ask? One word: Romans. Specifically, the Battle of Teutoberg Forest, when a alliance of Germanic peoples defeated the Romans and stopped Roman expansion. It is an important date in European history, but I must admit, the choice of 9 C.E. as a start date gave me the giggles.
****The first big wave occurred after the failed revolutions of 1848. The second occurred in the 1870s when German Catholics faced persecution in the new German Empire.
*****I first saw this technique used at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., where the effect was heartrending.
Traveler’s Tip: If you’re in the Quad Cities during baseball season, checkout the schedule for the local minor league ball team, the delightfully named Quad City River Bandits. It’s hard to beat a summer night at a small ballpark.