As German-American Heritage Museum Director Lentz Moves On, A Look Back
Enlarge image (© Germany.info / Jacob Comenetz) “History is best told by stories about persons. That’s what this museum is about.”
Rüdiger Lentz should know. As Executive Director of the German-American Heritage Museum of the USA (GAHM), Lentz put his expert storytelling skills, honed over a lengthy journalism career, to use while launching, developing, creating every aspect of the museum—the first of its kind in DC—over the past three and a half years.
The many fascinating stories over 400 years of German immigration and integration, first to the American colonies, then to the United States of America, are told through a timeline which is the backbone of the permanent exhibition in the museum on 6th Street in DC’s Penn Quarter, and by the changing exhibitions which draw visitors, around half of them school groups, to the museum.
Enlarge image The German-American Heritage Museum is located in the heart of downtown Washington, DC. (© Courtesy German-American Heritage Museum) In telling the stories of the seven to eight million Germans who have immigrated to America since 1607, the museum speaks to the around 45 million Americans who trace their heritage to Germany.
In addition to the history of German immigration to America, visitors to the GAHM learn about prominent German-Americans, and how German culture and traditions have become deeply woven into the American fabric. The current exhibition is devoted to the more than 40 places in the USA bearing the name “Berlin,” in honor of the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech. In the rear of the main exhibition hall, a multimedia kiosk offers a window on the Germany of today.
“You Need a Museum Here”
The GAHM’s own story begins with a striking Victorian row house on 6th Street in downtown DC, itself with an intriguing German-American background. Built in 1888 as a private home by German immigrant John Hockemeyer, the building’s extension housed a popular German-American men’s club with a bowling alley and liquor license.
(© Germany.info / Jacob Comenetz)
In 2008, Bern E. Deichmann, then president of the German-American Heritage Foundation of the USA (GAHF), was considering purchasing Hockemeyer Hall to help raise the profile of the Foundation, representing 70 German-American clubs with 20,000 members across the United States, in the US capital.
Deichmann approached Lentz, then head of “Deutsche Welle” in Washington, for advice.
“Seeing [Hockemeyer Hall], I said you need a museum here,” Lentz told Germany.info in a recent interview. “And then they asked me if I have any ideas.”
From Eisenhower to Doris Day
Lentz’s ideas became the basis for launching the GAHM, a noteworthy addition to the landscape in a world-class museum city, after he accepted the GAHF board’s invitation to lead the new institution.
Since opening in March 2010, the museum has been giving young people, especially the many school groups that visit, a unique perspective on American history.
It’s encouraging, Lentz says, to witness the “wow-effect” when kids who are interested in American history realize the significant part German-Americans have played.
Enlarge image (© Germany.info / Jacob Comenetz) “They come up the stairs and see, hey, it’s Elvis Presley, it’s Eisenhower, it’s Doris Day, and many others. Household names who are still famous are suddenly [gaining] a different meaning, background, and that’s good.”
One of the most successful temporary exhibitions focussed on German-Americans in the US Congress. Organized in cooperation with the US Capitol Historical Society, its opening in October 2011 attracted the German ambassador to the US and deputy foreign minister at the time, as well as many members of Congress. In addition to being displayed in the Senate and House on the Hill and the GAHM, the exhibition will now be traveling to Germany.
“Rüdiger as the first executive director really built out a row house into a very attractive museum that people can enjoy, feel comfortable visiting, and inspires them to think and learn more about their own family’s contribution to the American fabric,” says Marc Wheat, current president of the GAHF. “We hope to plant the idea that Americans need to rediscover their German-speaking heritage, and it’s not as hard as they might think.”
A New Chapter in Berlin
As Lentz leaves the GAHM this month for a new challenge, leading the Aspen Institute Germany in Berlin, he can look back on a successful start for the institution.
Enlarge image (© Germany.info / Jacob Comenetz) “We’re sad to see him go,” says Wheat, “but we also know it’s a great vote of confidence in Rüdiger and the work he has put into making the GAHF an important fixture in the transatlantic relationship.”
In Berlin Lentz will become the first German director of the Aspen Institute, a respected think tank on transatlantic affairs which marks its 40th anniversary in 2014. The institute’s commitment to finding common solutions to problems through a non-ideological approach is one shared by Lentz, and so he looks forward to his return, after many years, to life on the River Spree.
“Being a transatlanticist for three decades, I think it’s good that I come back and bring something with me which might help to find some solutions or to have a lively dialogue and discussion about many issues. So I’m very open minded, and I think it will work out.”