Schenectady County

Museum aims to teach about Italian contributions to America’s heritage

You’ve probably never heard of Giovanni Caboto, but if Philip J. DiNovo has his way, that’s all goin

You’ve probably never heard of Giovanni Caboto, but if Philip J. DiNovo has his way, that’s all going to change.

DiNovo is the president and executive director of the American Italian Heritage Museum, which opened its doors to the public for the first time Friday at its 1227 Central Ave. site, formerly the home of Our Lady of Mercy Church, built, coincidentally, by Italian-American immigrants in 1922.

DiNovo’s primary goal is to help educate people about the Italian-American contribution to the New World, and that probably begins with correctly identifying Sir John Cabot, the “English” explorer who was the first to probe the coast of North America after it was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1492.

“John Cabot was Giovanni Caboto, and he was an Italian explorer hired by the English to explore America,” said DiNovo, an Albany native and retired business administration professor at SUNY Morrisville. “But you don’t find Giovanni Caboto in the history textbooks. You don’t realize how many Italians made really significant contributions to the founding of this country.”

Cabot’s real name is just one of the many little tidbits of history on display at the museum. There are interpretive panels detailing the Italian emigration to the U.S., hundreds of historic photographs showing the 19th and 20th century Italian-American experience in this country and dozens of other artifacts that also document that experience.

DiNovo formed the American Italian Heritage Association 30 years ago when he was teaching at SUNY Morrisville, and in 1985, the group opened a small museum at 668 Catherine St. in Utica. After retiring, he closed the Utica location in 1998 and moved back to the Capital Region. Five years ago, he purchased the building at 1227 Central Ave.

“It took a lot of hard work, and I was hoping I might have a full-time paid staff when I finally opened this building,” said DiNovo. “But it’s been tough financially in these times, so we’re always going to be fundraising. But I felt like it was really important to get this building open and to educate people about Italian-Americans. We have to counteract the impression that we’re all members of the mafioso. That’s not what were all about.”

For now, DiNovo and a team of volunteers will staff the building. It will be open Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and on Saturday and Sunday from noon until 4 p.m. A grand opening celebration will be held on Oct. 4.

“We thought Albany held much greater possibilities for our museum,” said DiNovo, referring to the move from Utica. “There are 145,000 Italian-Americans living in the Capital Region, and while that should help us bring in more people, this museum isn’t just for Italian-Americans. We want everyone to know about our contribution.”

DiNovo’s museum is on the first floor of the old church building and is broken up into nine different rooms, including one to house temporary exhibits.

“We’re also going to use that room to allow other ethnic groups to set up exhibits and tell their story,” said DiNovo. “There wasn’t a welcome sign put out to meet us. We can identify with the way a lot of other ethnic groups were treated when they first came to this country. We all have that in common.”

Clifton Park’s Frank Gutta was at Friday’s opening, helping DiNovo to greet visitors as one of the group’s volunteers.

“I came back from Italy a few years ago, looked into this museum and it seemed like a great idea,” said Gutta. “I want people to know that Italian-Americans are literate and that we speak perfect English. About 99 percent of us have absolutely nothing to do with the mafia or anything like that. I want people to know that during World War II, Italian-Americans were five percent of the population but 10 percent of the military. That’s the kind of thing I want people to know about us.”

Eventually, DiNovo hopes to turn the second floor of the building into a library and classroom.

“There’s only five or six Italian-American museums in the country, and the closest one to us is in New York City,” said DiNovo. “We like to think this is something really special.”

“My mother was born in Italy, and this is a great opportunity for people to learn about and love all things Italian-American,” said Rosemary Eberlein of Menands, another volunteer. “I’m very happy to help out.”

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