Rüdiger Lentz - A Storyteller Puts Spotlight on German-American Heritage
Enlarge image The new German-American Heritage Museum in Washington. (© German-American Heritage Museum of the USA) Rüdiger Lentz, whose previous career as a journalist took him from Germany to Brussels to Washington, where he was chief of German broadcaster Deutsche Welle's DC-based US bureau, is executive director of the new German-American Heritage Museum of the USA.
He spoke to Germany.info as the finishing touches were being put on the museum, which opened to the general public on March 21, 2010.
A visit to the museum in downtown DC is free of charge. And if you happen to have any German, Austrian or Swiss heritage stories you would like to share with the world, you can now do so via a nifty new oral history project funded by the German government and administered by the museum.
A series of permanent and temporary exhibitions, gift shop and events in a 60-seat lecture hall round out the museum's eclectic repertoire. It aspires to serve as both a local center of German-American relations and a national home to all German-Americans across the country.
What prompted you to take on the role of director of the German-American Heritage Museum? Will you be touring the country to drum up interest in and support for the museum?
It was the challenge and it was the history of Germans coming to America. The challenge to build a museum from scratch is something you will only experience once in a lifetime. And because I have been a museum aficionado since I was very little, and I was always interested in how does culture and art translate into public perception? That's what good museums are about. And because I have a journalistic background, including in television, which means I've been working with texts and with images most of my life. All of these things came together and that was why I took on this challenge.
Enlarge image Stairs inside the building highlight the names of prominent German-Americans, from Albert Einstein to Babe Ruth to Doris Day. (© German-American Heritage Museum of the USA) Secondly, yes I will be touring the country and trying to get other German-Americans interested in this endeavor. Because I think this is not only building a museum, it is also creating a sort of spirit for German-Americans living in the United States that they have a point of reference where they can cling to, a point of reference which can make them proud about their ethnicity.
Nobody wants to be nationalistic - just the opposite. But I think the achievements and contributions of Germans in American history have long been not neglected but at the very least they have been sort of buried. And this unsung story has to be told.
The American public should be made aware of the big impact that the Germans had on the history and the making of the United States of America. And that's what I'm interested in. So this is a political challenge, this is an educational challenge, this is an intellectual challenge, and that's why I took this heavy task on.
What can people expect when they come to the museum? Beyond both permanent and rotating exhibitions, events and basic information about Germany today, will they be able to research and trace their own German ancestry right here? Will they be able to sign up to participate in your new oral history project right here?
They can expect a very interesting look back into their history and their achievements, but they can also learn more about the Germany of today. Many German-Americans living in the States for one or two or more generations have completely blended in. There are many reasons for it - adaptation to a new environment, the First World War, when they tried to blend in because it was not very popular shortly after the First World War and especially after the Second World War to cling to your German heritage.
But now with 60 years of the Federal Republic (of Germany) in existence and a lot of good things going on, German-Americans are becoming proud of their heritage again. They're proud now because Germany is a strong partner or ally. And insofar I think we are experiencing a kind of rebirth or revitalization of German-Americans.
This is notable among the younger generation. Interestingly enough the grandmothers teach their grandkids about Germany how they saw it in the past and the young kids about how they see it today. I hear from teachers that after years of decline of German language in the schools it has stabilized somewhat. In some areas it's even picking up. So I think after all this is a great experience and we want to support this feeling of German-Americans.
Enlarge image Rüdiger Lentz (center) invited Michael Zenner (left), deputy director for Communication and Public Diplomacy at the German Foreign Office, and Hans-Ulrich von Schroeter (right), deputy director of the German Information Center USA, to visit the Heritage Museum for a sneak preview in December 2009. (© German-American Heritage Museum of the USA) About the ancestry: No, we are not researching the ancestry of German-Americans here, because you can do that today on the Internet from your home computer. We don't need to support individual and search requests.
But what we have is a more important project which gives German-Americans the opportunity to preserve a legacy of their own by telling their stories as audio and video files which will be preserved on hard disc, which will be academically worked with and later on preserved as data files.
So what we want to do is build a database over time where German-Americans can leave their history, their personal experiences, and even what they think about German-American relations of today. So this is a great project which is funded by the Federal Republic of Germany.
Describe this new research project. How many interviews do you hope to record for the project and when do you hope to make it available for academic research? Will it be archived with the federal government or major libraries across the country?
About the numbers: Our target is in the first year to have at least 200 German-Americans take part in this academic research, and over the years I'm targeting a number of at least 500 per year.
If you compare that with another academic project which Ellis Island is undertaking, they have recorded over 15 years only about 2,000 to 2,500 interviews of all ethnicities, and only about 200 Germans.
I believe we can do much better and we can do that because our questionnaire and our process of retrieving that information is fully automated. You can sit in front of a camera and a touch screen and you can do it in 30 minutes. So we don't need any additional tools and means to retrieve that information.
And we invite everybody to take part in that because everybody can leave his or her legacy behind!
Will you be working with the German-American Heritage Center in Davenport, Iowa, for instance, which serves as a museum and library?
Certainly - yes. But this is a regional museum, focusing on regional German influx and immigrants. We have a much larger scope. We're not only a national institutional, but we also have a much broader angle going far beyond looking back and telling a story with a very narrow focus. There are so many religious groups that have immigrated to the United States - one could tell the story of the Amish, or one could tell the story of the Herrenhuter, or many other groups.
So there are still plenty of stories out there, that over time we have here an opportunity on tell, because we will also have temporary exhibits. Besides what we have here - the timeline, the kiosk showing a window on to the Germany of today, the stories of club life of German-Americans today, and the individual stories of immigrants - we will have temporary exhibitions which might also go deeper into some specific topics and themes which we also want to cover.
You have said you will also serve the Austrian and Swiss communities in the United States, to encompass the entire German-speaking world. How are you ensuring that this is the case? Surely their stories will also be included in the oral history project?
Enlarge image A bust of German composer Georg Friedrich Händel (1685-1759) watches over a special permanent exhibition on music at the museum. (© German-American Heritage Museum of the USA) Yes, we will also serve Austrian and Swiss communities in the United States. We are dealing with immigrants of German heritage or German-language heritage, which also includes part of the Salzburgers, part of the Swiss immigrants.
But overall I think first and foremost we are German, because the sheer numbers are much larger, it is much bigger. About 7 million Germans immigrated to the United States and less than a million, maybe even less, immigrated from Austria and Switzerland.
At the same time you also have to consider that this was in the 18th and 19th centuries, during the time of the Hapsburg Empire. So if someone immigrated from Hungary speaking German, we would take him as an Austrian, or what, an Austrian-Hapsburgian? But how can you tell? So this is also reflecting European history of the 17th to 19th centuries which is very different from what we have today.
Surely we will invite them to leave their stories in the oral history project as well. This is all about inclusion so we will not exclude anyone here.
The Volga Germans, which is a large group, made it under the Russian Empire when they had the pogroms and when they were politically suppressed. They were Germans, they felt German, and they were living in Russia as the so-called Volga Germans. And most of them immigrated to the United States because they were farmers and they were looking to America as a farmland with vast opportunities. So in the 1870's, 1880's and 90's, tens of thousands of Volga Germans came to America. And it's a large community still in existence, and yes they will be included.
What aspects of the German-American experience do you believe are less well documented or well understood across the span of modern American history? What contributions made by German-Americans may have been overlooked in many of our history books?
America from the very first moment starting in colonial times was dominated by Anglo-Saxon culture, language and political dominance. The Germans either blended in or were sort of apolitical, not really taking part in the political process. Carl Schurz is an outstanding example, yet he is a little bit of an anomoly.
Mostly they were in farming, in printing, some of them really were very successful publishers, but they didn't have an impact like the Anglo-Saxons had. So many of their stories remain buried because what impact they had on culture, on politics, on economics. We still can uncover a lot of stories about Germans and their impact. And that's what we want to do.
We don't want to overstate their influence. I have no interest in making this a shining temple of: "Hey, we've done it all - I mean we are the ones!" This is certainly wrong.
Enlarge image A window on to modern Germany, including on travel and keeping in touch via free electronic newsletters including The Week in Germany from the German Information Center USA, is provided at a kiosk inside the museum. (© German-American Heritage Museum of the USA) But we want to put it in the right perspective, to balance things. And at the end of the day we want to say: "Hey, the German-Americans can be proud of what they've achieved, and the Americans can be proud that the Germans were helping them in building this country." They are a part of it. They're part of it.
And that's what we try to achieve over time. That will take time. But we are here to stay, which means that in the next five years everybody has to reckon with us.
As a small museum on the museum circuit here in Washington, in very close proximity to all the interesting localities - like the Verizon Center, like the Portrait Gallery, like the Spy Museum, like the National Gallery, like the Archives, this is all only two or three or four blocks away - we have a once in a lifetime chance to make an imprint on the American cultural scene.
This is the first ethnicity which has its first national museum in Washington DC. So after all of these 400 years the Germans are back. And the Germans are showing "we were here and we will stay here".
It will also reflect the good relations between our two countries, which will be shown and talked about and discussed in this museum.
And this is not only a museum, it will also serve as a community center and as a center of lectures, of concerts, of speeches, of seminars. You will see - we can do a lot here. So we will roll out a very, very ambitious program in the months and years to come.
This interview was conducted by Karen Carstens in March 2010.