|Should you go?|
|Time spent||65 minutes|
|Best thing I saw or learned||Antonio Meucci built a rustic rocking chair from roots and saplings. The description says that he would sit in his garden “embittered by the thought that the glory of his invention had been denied him.” The rocking chair of bitterness, I can get behind that.|
Hope and bitterness, triumph and failure, fame and obscurity, a technological and a political revolution, all in one modest house in Staten Island. How can one place epitomize such divergent fates? Such is the story of the Garibaldi-Meucci Museum.
Antonio Meucci comes first. An inventor who dabbled in new-fangled applications of electricity, Meucci moved from Italy to Cuba before settling in Staten Island in 1850. As early as 1849, he started working on something he called the teletrofono, which converted sound waves to electricity, transmitted them over a wire, and re-converted them to sound via a speaker at the other end. Sound familiar?
The house tells the story of a brilliant but naive man, who took his invention (prototypes, models, and all) to a major telegraph company, only to be brushed off. He lacked resources to file a patent on his own. And was incensed when Alexander Graham Bell patented a suspiciously similar invention a few years later. And Bell had worked for that very same telegraph company!
In addition to a video narrative of his story, one room in the museum collects some Meucci-bilia, including a few surviving teletrofono models, his rocking chair, and his death mask.
Belatedly, both the New York City and the U.S. House of Representatives have acknowledged Meucci’s unsung role in the telephone’s invention, though of course neither he nor his heirs ever saw one dime of royalties. The museum houses those proclamations as well.
If Meucci had a better lawyer, more resources, better English language skills, or a less trusting nature, we’d all be talking on celltrofonos today.
Giuseppe Garibaldi was the driving force for Italian independence and unification. Italy hadn’t been a single political unit since the fall of Rome, and by the 1800s various bits were controlled by the Swiss, Austria-Hungary, the Papal States, and Bourbon Spain. But as the tide of nationalism was rising across Europe, a few visionaries (or lunatics, depending) like Garibaldi decided Italy should be a single, independent country, too.
Garibaldi’s story is one of the merits of persistence. He tried a couple of times to march an army across the Italian peninsula, and failed. He fled to exile first in Uruguay (where he again stirred up revolutionary passions among the locals) and then, for a while, in New York. When the local Italian community needed a place for the polarizing, heroic man to lie low, Meucci stepped forward. Garibaldi wanted to be out of the limelight, so the idyllic little house in Staten Island appealed.
Eventually, of course, History called (but not on a teletrofono), and Garibaldi returned to Europe. Where, much to the surprise of nearly everyone, he actually succeeded in creating the Italy we know today.
Garibaldi only lived in the house for a couple of years, but two rooms of the museum cover that time. One presents a collection of Garibaldi artifacts — weapons, uniforms, an imposing bronze bust, and some charming maps that detail his travels in loops of yarn. The other, upstairs, re-creates Garibaldi’s bedroom.
Should You Visit the Garibaldi-Meucci Museum?
After Garibaldi’s death in 1882, the house got a plaque recognizing his stay. When Meucci died, New York’s Italian community took over. In the early 1900s, they erected an ersatz Palladian temple of wood and plaster over and around the house.
Maintaining that proved difficult. They removed the monumental shell in the 1950s to create the modest museum and cultural center that exists to the present day. Operated by the Sons of Italy, the museum has periodically formulated plans to expand.
That might help. Garibaldi was l’eroe dei due mondi, (hero of two worlds–Italy and Uruguay, that is). However, I’m not sure everyone needs to make a pilgrimage to his brief home on Staten Island. It’s interesting, but haphazard. Like many small museums, the Garibaldi-Meucci Museum’s very limited space and resources hamper its ability to tell its dual stories.
An introductory video covers Meucci, with appropriate levels of bitterness and righteous anger. And my guide through the museum was both knowledgeable and enthusiastic. However, a clutter of folding tables and chairs in the way of the displays detracted. They serve the museum’s other role as classroom for Italian language, culture, and opera.
If you’re a fan of history, Italy, or underdog inventors, you’ll enjoy visiting the Garibaldi-Meucci Museum. And if you are trekking to the terrific Alice Austen House, this is an easy walk away.
|Address||420 Tompkins Ave, Staten Island|
|Cost||General Admission: $10|
|Other Relevant Links||