The tiny German-American Heritage Museum downtown is hosting a tightly packed exhibit based on a failed scheme in 1834 by a group of German immigrants to create a 25th state to join the 24 United States of America under President Andrew Jackson.
“You know, like Virginia, Maryland,” said Peter Roloff, the Berlin-based director of “Utopia: Revisiting a German State in America.” “They had no name for their new state, but they had a name for their planned capital — Freistadt, or Freetown.”
The plan was to encourage Germans to immigrate to the new state, where Teutonic norms would have equal standing with the English-based Americana of the time, he said. “In the 25th state, the Germans would have American liberties and freedoms they never had back in Germany.”
The 1,000-square-foot exhibit is stuffed with storyboards, displays, documents, texts, photographs and videos. Everything is pegged to the utopian hopes of the 500 small-town Germans who emigrated from Giessen, a Rockville-size city of 70,000 today, about 40 miles north of Frankfurt. The exhibit follows their ancestors and impact 150 years later in Missouri, where the group settled on the “American frontier,” said Roloff, a former professor of mass media who is now a film producer.
The 20 or so volunteer curators who created the transatlantic exhibit wanted to convey both the physical feel of moving great distances and the emotional discomfort of going from the familiar to the new and unknown. The goal isn’t for visitors just to know facts and figures, Roloff said, “but to feel somehow the texture of time, of wanting freedom, of being afraid and maybe not succeeding as you had hoped.”
“Of course, the Giessen Emigration Society was a complete failure,” said Dorris Keeven-Franke, executive director of the Missouri Germans Consortium. Led by a pastor and a lawyer from Giessen, with no friends in or knowledge of the United States, not enough money, no advocates in high places — “no K Street lobbyists, for sure,” Keeven-Franke said in a telephone interview — the isolated foreigners in the backwoods of Missouri were “destined for disappointment.”
Still, the immigrants succeeded individually in building lives in America, although they saw enough in the New World to know that it was far from utopia, she said. The Geissen Germans were abolitionists opposed both to slavery and to the religious bigotry that blossomed during the “nativism” era of the 1840s and ’50s, when Mormons, Catholics and many non-English immigrants were openly attacked by fellow Americans. The Missouri Germans fought on the Union side in the Civil War, Keeven-Franke said, “when the easy path was to just let America settle its own problems.”
The Giessen utopian experiment faded in time — until about 14 years ago, when a collective of German artists, filmmakers, archivists, historians and others fell in love with the story, Roloff said. They raised about $200,000 in Germany to commission research, and to accumulate artifacts and archival records.
The collective, which is independent of government or academic oversight, contacted and then visited Keeven-Franke in Missouri, and a bilingual book about the immigrants and the utopian project was published in 2013 in a joint venture with the Missouri History Museum and the University of Chicago Press.
The group sent a film crew to Missouri in 2009 to begin a documentary on the project. The movie will debut in November at the St. Louis International Film Festival, Roloff said.
The full exhibit — spanning 3,000 square feet — opened in Giessen last November, then moved to Bremen in April. After a brief stop and a truncated version in Washington, the full show will be taken to the Missouri History Museum in St. Louis.
Visitors may be surprised by the complexity of the small iteration in Washington. One crate, for example, contains a collage of German and American teenagers describing their relationships to emigration and immigration in Europe and the Americas. “Far away so close — How much Missouri is there in Gröpelingen?” lets teens weigh in on contemporary experiences of “foreignness” and homesickness.
At an installation called “Utopia Today,” visitors are asked whether utopian thinking could lead to improvements in personal freedom, work, the economy, democracy and love.
Most intriguing is the “Muss i denn” exhibit — “Must I leave?” in German, the title of a sentimental folk song so popular that even Elvis recorded it. Visitors check in at a fictive travel agency to donate a personal item to immigrate for “adoption” by someone in Germany.
“It’s about the tenderness of saying goodbye, the feeling of farewell,” Ester Steinbrecker, a Berlin performance curator who designed the exhibit, said in a telephone interview. “Every one of your ancestors went through this ‘saying goodbye,’ to things, to home, to loved ones. The value now is to remember that, and that your American lives today can be or should be ‘utopia.’ ”
In this age of instant messaging, Steinbrecker said, “we wanted something really meaningful and sentimental, an experience, not a tweet.” She plans to take as many as two dozen items from the German-American Heritage Museum to Germany, where at a “Muss i denn” desk at the Giessen museum, Germans can “adopt the newly arrived American immigrants,” she explained.
Before leaving Germany, in turn, she solicited a crateload of German donations — a painting, a watering can, a compass, a toy and other small items — and recorded the Germans “sending these off for a new life in America,” she said. “Some people cried, and others laughed that they were so happy to reach across to America.”
“We exchange big ideas in a museum, no?” Steinbrecker said. “Social interaction and utopian contact comes in small ways, too.”
Lane is a freelance writer.
Utopia: Revisiting a German State in America Through Oct. 25 at the German-American Heritage Museum, 719 Sixth St. NW. 202-467-5000. www.gahmusa.org. Free.