Dr. Joseph Scelsa, Ph.D. President and Chief Executive Officer of the Italian American Museum, New York.
Joseph V. Scelsa is a licensed mental health counselor in New York State and has spent the majority of his professional career - 35 years - in academia. Now he is the president and chief executive officer of the Italian American Museum which recently opened in the heart of New York City's historic Little Italy.
Dr. Scelsa is a fountain of knowledge about Italian and Italian American history and a leader in sharing this knowledge with the world. However, his impressive academic background is not confined to the study of the Italian American experience. Altogether he has three Master's degrees from City University of New York and Columbia and a Doctorate in Education from Columbia Teachers College. He has taught courses on a variety of subjects - including Education and Counseling - at the City University of New York for many years and most recently served as vice president of CUNY's Queens College. Dr. Scelsa has worked with museum directors and overseen museum programs at institutions such as the Louis Armstrong Center Archive and Museum and Queens College's Godwin-Ternbach Museum.
However, Italian American Studies has always been "a sub-interest" in Dr. Scelsa's professional career. As he describes it, he has "always seen the relationship between identity and ethnicity." His dissertation at Teachers College was on the subject of Constructive Pluralism which he says, "means basically sharing one's own culture with oneself and also with others." At CUNY he spent twenty years as the director of the Italian American Institute developing a variety of courses, "geared towards the Italian American experience." In 1999 he co-arranged an exhibition - his first on the Italian American experience - at the New York Historical Society. That exhibition, "The Italians of New York" was a great success, so much so that Scelsa realized "we knew that we had hit on something."
Scelsa remembered hearing Charles Willie, the eminent Harvard University sociologist who had been a visiting professor at Teachers College when he was earning his doctorate, discuss the needs served by black colleges. Scelsa felt that Italian Americans shared a similar need for such institutions. "So I decided that I would research how to become a museum," he explains. "Which I did from 2000 to 2001, and we were chartered. So that's the genesis." His feeling that there were too few institutions dedicated to this particular area was confirmed when he and his colleagues went to secure the rights to the title "Italian American Museum." "We didn't think that we'd be able to get it," he explains, "because we figured it was probably something that had already been taken." He was surprised to find that "not only was it not taken in New York State, but it's really not taken in the United States. There is no other Italian American Museum." The museum's founding he says, "seemed like a natural consequence of the work that I had been doing, and that we had been moving towards."
For several years the museum operated at 44th Street at a City University building. In November 2007, however, the museum purchased three buildings at the corner of Mulberry and Grant Streets - the historic center of New York's Little Italy. In the autumn of 2008 the museum officially opened at its new location, one of the three buildings that formerly served as a community bank. The former Banca Stabile currently has an exhibition on life in historic Little Italy which is small "but beautiful" according to Scelsa. As fundraising continues the museum will be able to expand into more and more of the building space. "We hope to open up another gallery this year," Scelsa says. Although the museum, like everyone else, has been affected by recent economic developments, Scelsa is confident that soon the museum will be able to double its space, giving the museum room for rotating exhibitions and a gift shop.
Dr. Scelsa was happy to talk about upcoming exhibitions. He was particularly excited about a planned exhibit on Italian Americans and Law Enforcement scheduled to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the death of Italian American police hero Giuseppe Petrosino, who died in Palermo investigating the Black Hand. Frank Serpico will be donating some of his personal effects to the museum for this exhibition: his revolvers, his automatic pistol, his police coat and his notebook. "The Smithsonian wanted it," Scelsa tells me. "But Frank is very Italian - very Italian-American. He wanted it to be in a place that was more close to him, and that would also exhibit it on a continual basis."
And for the long-term? Scelsa would like to see the museum "fully built out" in his lifetime. "And," he adds, "I'd like to see a full range of educational programs come to the museum." As a long-term academician, he hopes to see the Italian American Museum offer more than just exhibitions - "I'd also like to see the relationships between colleges, universities, and schools, where it could become a laboratory model for young people to learn about this experience, to learn about not only the Italian Americans but a laboratory model for museumology. That's something I'd like very much to see happen."
When asked about the significance the Italian American Museum will have, Scelsa opines, "I do not think that you're going to see 20 square blocks of Italians moving to Little Italy" - like in its heyday of the 1920s - "but I do think that it will help to preserve an identity that could easily be lost."
Dr. Scelsa estimates that about as many non-Italian-Americans as Italian-Americans have come to the museum and enjoyed it immensely, which he thinks is wonderful. He explains, "People want to be able to be in touch with their past. And even if it's not their past, so many people are entering, learning about other people's past, seeing what America was like before. The more we understand ourselves, the more we understand each other."
Italian American Museum
155 Mulberry Street, New York, NY 10013
(Corners of Mulberry and Grand Streets)
Wednesday through Sunday 11 am - 6 pm; Friday to 8 pm
Closed Monday and Tuesday except by prior arrangement
Groups of 12 or more by appointment
Suggested donation: $5