Honoring and celebrating Americans of Italian descent in New Orleans began in earnest at the 1984 World’s Fair with the American-Italian Cultural Museum.
Joe Maselli was the driving force behind the effort to create a permanent museum on South Peters Street after the fair.
He cherished his heritage and was active in many Italian heritage groups, including the American Italian Federation of the Southeast, and spearheaded the project until his death about three years ago, his son, Frank Maselli, said.
Over the years, the museum has taught and still teaches Italian language courses, has held many Italian cultural events, has inducted local individuals of Italian descent into its American Italian Hall of Fame and has served as a research library on local American Italian history for families interested in genealogy and scholars.
When Frank Maselli took the reins as chairman and acting director he began evaluating how the center could be more vibrant. He envisioned a more interactive American Italian Cultural Center and has launched a capital campaign to renovate the space.
“I wanted to bring it to life more and make it more relevant,” he said. “Very few Italians today are 100 percent Italian and they are pretty distant from when the actual immigrants came over. ... I want it to be more of a cultural center for Italians and Italian American culture.”
Maselli hired museum consultants Gallagher and Associates to work on a master plan to redesign the American Italian Cultural Center.
The design will reconfigure the three-floor center and add 1,200-square feet of air-conditioned space at a projected cost of $2.5 million. Maselli said $500,000 in commitments already have been secured for the project, with an anticipated start time at the end of 2012. Maselli has architect Frank Gerarve and the Lemoine Company contractors on board.
Maselli said the new blueprint will make the center more self-sustainable with a coffee shop and cafe, a theater streaming videos of Italian culture in New Orleans and statewide, and a gift shop that’s easily accessible on the bottom floor.
The second floor – now housing the bulk of the exhibits and the center’s “Italian Hall of Fame” enshrining nearly 80 well-known Italian locals – will be converted into a versatile reception hall that can accommodate up to 200 people or be divided for smaller venues or museum special events, videos and classes. There also will be Italian artifacts in changing exhibits on this level.
The third floor – once home to the extensive research library of Italian heritage – will become the exhibit nucleus of the new center. The library already has been relocated to the Jefferson Parish East Bank main library on West Napoleon Avenue in Metairie.
“This will give us more room to do things here,” Maselli said.
While final decisions have yet to be made on exhibits in the main gallery, Maselli says the major themes to be explored will include: “Who are the American Italians of New Orleans?”; “Where did the American Italians come from and where did they live and settle in New Orleans?”; “When did they arrive and the time frame of their movements?”; “What have the American Italians of New Orleans accomplished?”; “What have the American Italians of New Orleans contributed locally, regionally, nationally and internationally?” and “American Italians of New Orleans today.”
He hopes to incorporate some 200 oral histories of local immigrants that his father conducted over the years. The St. Joseph Altar exhibit – a nod to the strong Catholic faith of Italians – will make its way into the new center. Joe Maselli was known for contributing to altars throughout the archdiocese and helped sponsor the big annual altar on the Piazza d’Italia, adjacent to the museum.
“We will pay respect to the St. Joseph Altar tradition and keep it alive,” Maselli said.
The revamping of the center was long overdue. Maselli said the last update was completed approximately 20 years ago by the National Parks Service.
“This is going to be alive,” Maselli said.
The American Italian Cultural Center will remain open during the renovation daily from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Call 522-7294 or visit www.american italianculturalcenter.com.
Christine Bordelon can be reached at cbordelon@clarion herald.org.