Past and Present: Immigration and Museum Exhibitions in the Anthracite Coal Region

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Neurock-Schriner, Aryn and Paul A. Shackel. 2024. “Past and Present: Immigration and Museum Exhibitions in the Anthracite Coal Region.” Museum Anthropology


Northeastern Pennsylvania was home to the anthracite coal industry for about two centuries. The area was originally settled by various waves of immigrants, first from Western, then Southern and Eastern Europe. The new immigrant miners faced many forms of prejudice and were exploited in a system of unchecked capitalism. They were racialized and placed at the bottom of the job hierarchy. Some capitalists did not consider them human and, therefore, not deserving of safe working conditions, decent housing, and equal pay. At the turn of the twenty-first century, a new wave of Hispanic immigrants from the Caribbean, Mexico, and South and Central America entered the region to work mainly in low-paying fulfillment center jobs. Their arrival is being met with various forms of xenophobia, much like the immigrant miners faced over a century ago. The online exhibition “We Are Anthracite,” hosted by the Anthracite Heritage Museum, addresses the call from the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) for museums to be civically engaged, build social capital and connecting new populations to place. The exhibition bridges the experiences between the past coal mining communities and new Hispanic immigrants. The state operated museum hosting this exhibition lends validity to the new immigrants’ place in this region, creating a narrative that their experiences are similar to the region’s inhabitants’ ancestors. By connecting common experiences, past and present, we are creating a form of bridging social capital that connects these different populations. While the northeastern Pennsylvania immigrant story is not well-known, it is rich and complex, like many Rust Belt communities undergoing similar major demographic shifts.



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