Language and Societies

ANT/LIN 5320 at Wayne State University

The Invisible Majority: Language as a Means of Education in the Context of a German-American Historic House Museum

The Invisible Majority: Language as a Means of Education in the Context of a German-American Historic House Museum

Kelly A. Johnston

German-Americans have very little representation within the museum industry. On the other hand, many smaller groups such as the Lithuanians, Poles, Swedes, Jews, and African Americans have museums, archives, and exhibit halls dedicated to their immigrant ancestors. Why is there so little German-American ethnicity in the slipstream of public consciousness? The Great War damaged German ethnic, linguistic, and cultural institutions almost beyond repair. The few smoldering embers of 19th century German culture and language were extinguished completely by World War II. One of the main themes of interpretation at the Kempf House Museum in Ann Arbor, Michigan is the Kempf family’s ethnic traditions. Currently, visitors to the museum are exposed to a limited amount of German language, and very little is mentioned of the family’s German heritage.  This paper asks, “How can presentation of German-language material in the context of the Kempf House Museum in Ann Arbor, Michigan, enhance knowledge of German-American history in Michigan?” 

This paper uses a review of history to establish the current state of German language and its usage within the United States and on a more local level within Michigan. It then reviews literature of the effectiveness of using a museum as a means to deliver interpretation to attain education goals. Finally, the author interviews several volunteers who attended docent training and then were taken on a tour of the house. They were asked to evaluate the level of “German-ness,” either through language or collections, they were exposed to. Respondents felt that while they understood the family was German, they didn’t gain knowledge of German language or culture either on a local or national level.

Several steps could be taken to improve the overall interpretation and education of the Kempf House Museum. First, the museum should create an interpretive plan that focuses on the German-American heritage that is mentioned in the docent-training guide. Secondly, the museum should revise their docent training guides to better emphasize the German collections and traditions. Thirdly, the museum should further train its docents to become familiar with German vocabulary and use them on the tours. And lastly, the simple yet effective method of placing labels with German vocabulary would further punctuate the German-ness of the house. By increasing the amount of German language and collections items within the museum, Kempf House could stand to be one of the foremost symbols of German-American history.

April 15, 2013 - Posted by | abstract

1 Comment »

  1. Great subject for study. German language newspapers, Arbeiter Halls, German fraternal orgs, etc. were ubiquitous across the American landscape before the wars yet they’ve been virtually forgotten in most interpretations of American life.

    Comment by Brenna | April 15, 2013 | Reply

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