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The Faces of America Shine at Ethnic Museums

Every family has a story. And for many Americans, that family story started somewhere a long, long way from here.

More than any other country, America is a nation of immigrants, and its collective culture includes an incredibly rich diversity of ethnicities and heritage. People from around the world have helped to shape the face of modern America, and their stories paint a vivid picture of the nation’s shared experiences.

One of the best ways to appreciate the diversity of America is to visit one of the many ethnic heritage museums around the country that highlight the histories, cultures and contributions of specific populations. Whether it’s Nordic, Mexican, Chinese, Jewish or African-American heritage that interests you, these museums present experiences brimming with pride and community.

National Museum of American Jewish History


Founded in 1976, the National Museum of American Jewish History sits on Independence Mall in the heart of Historic Philadelphia. That’s no accident: Even though the museum focuses on Jewish heritage, its overarching mission is to tell stories of freedom.

“Because of our location, our entire museum is organized around the theme of freedom,” said CEO Ivy Barsky. “We talk about the American experience from the 17th century to now through a Jewish lens. It’s specific to Jewish stories, but we use it to see the bigger American experience and to help chip away at the challenges around freedom.”

Much of that exploration surrounds the topic of religious freedom. Though Jews first arrived in North America in 1654, they weren’t allowed to practice their religion publicly for quite some time. One of the museum’s prized artifacts is a 1790 letter from George Washington to a Hebrew congregation in Rhode Island reassuring them of the American government’s commitment to religious liberty.

In addition to exhibits about freedom, the museum details the immigration experience and examines the reasons Jewish immigrants left their homes and families to seek better lives in the United States.

“We tell immigration stories with cutting-edge technology,” said Naomi Echental, the museum’s director of visitor services. “One of the areas is an interactive station where people can step up to a computer screen, encounter an immigration officer and take some of the tests that immigrants had to take to determine their worthiness to come into the country, assessing their mental stability and cultural understanding.”

The museum offers a general overview tour for groups, as well as a number of special themed tours such as Women in American Jewish History, American Jews and American Law, and American Jews and the Pioneer Experience.

Museum of Chinese in America

New York

Many people who travel to New York visit its Chinatown neighborhood, but few take the time to explore the rich cultural heritage that Chinese immigrants have brought to the United States. At the Museum of Chinese in America, located at the crossroads of Chinatown and SoHo in Manhattan, groups can learn about Chinese culture and history through immersive and personal stories.

“Our core exhibition tells about 160 years of Chinese in America,” said Sophie Lo, public programming and marketing associate at the museum. “It’s chronological. It starts out with the trade and exchange of Chinese people coming into the West, how it helped the modernization of America and the kinds of roles that Chinese laborers played in American history.”

Exhibits draw from the museum’s collection of more than 65,000 artifacts to illustrate typical Chinese careers, Chinese contributions to mainstream culture, issues of racism, the World War II experience, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and other relevant topics.

“One of my favorite spots in the museum is a re-creation of a general store,” Lo said. “General stores played a really important part in Chinatown in the early 20th century. They served as a hub for immigrants, providing translation services, mail and travel agencies. It’s where people got news about what was going on in other Chinese American communities and, also, happenings back in China.

The museum hosts a number of special events throughout the year. The Lunar New Year Festival features Chinese arts, crafts, music, dance, workshops and culinary demonstrations. The Dragon Boat Festival takes place in summer in July or August, and smaller events take place at various times as well.

On Saturdays, the museum offers guided walking tours through Chinatown, including a tour that focuses on restaurants and coffeehouses. The staff can arrange for a private walking tour for groups as well.

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.