Journey to America: Elmhurst History Museum exhibit takes new look at modern immigration

The Elmhurst History Museum opened their newest exhibit, “In Pursuit of Happiness: Immigrants in Our Communities,” on Oct. 28. The exhibit runs through May 14, 2023.

Political unrest, limited opportunities for work and the desire to create a new and better life are just some motivations behind immigration to the U.S., but there’s so much more to those stories.

Over the past year and a half, Elmhurst History Museum consultant Sandy Denninger has sought to learn more about the stories of immigrants and their children, the first generation navigating between the traditions of their parents and the new culture and customs of being an American.

What Denninger discovered is the basis for the exhibit “In Pursuit of Happiness: Immigrants in Our Communities,” which opened Oct. 28 at the Elmhurst History Museum and offers insight from those who have settled in the area since the second half of the 20th century.

“It’s been a great project for me personally. I love working on a project that teaches me in the process,” said Denninger, who researched and designed the exhibit. “These are stories that need to be told.”

Since the 1960s, the U.S. has seen a more diverse group of immigrants entering the country, and rather than settling primarily in big cities – as prior waves of immigrants had done – immigrants who arrived in the later half of the 20th century settled in suburbs, due in part to the growth of businesses in the region.

Denninger spent almost two years gathering research for the museum exhibit, including interviews with almost 20 immigrants and first-generation children of immigrants. The exhibit will share some of the stories of those who immigrated to the area, including a woman from Serbia who arrived in 2011. Among the possessions she brought with were her coffee pot and grinder, saying she wasn’t sure she’d find her coffee in the U.S.

“I knew I had to find people willing to share their stories,” Denninger said.

The exhibit also shares stories of hardships and challenges, including the recollections of a young woman who was bullied by classmates when she unpacked her lunches. Classmates questioned the sights and smells of the Indian foods her mother prepared for her to eat.

Denninger said the exhibit includes a section on refugees and undocumented populations that have settled in the area. Visitors will learn about the path to citizenship and how the history of immigration laws has affected immigrants.

Through photos and artifacts, Denninger hopes to convey the stories of those who shared their journeys. It also examines the impact immigrants have had in the area, from developing new businesses and restaurants to their civic participation, she said.

The museum staff has worked to create a series of events around the new exhibit, from a gallery talk that allows Denninger to share behind-the-scenes stories and information from her research to stories from the immigrants themselves.

Through a partnership with the Elmhurst library, visitors can hear from award-winning author and podcast host Nestor Gomez exploring immigration issues, and the “One Book, One Elmhurst” book discussion will feature “American Like Me: Reflections on Life Between Cultures” featuring personal essays in a book edited by actress America Ferrera.

The exhibit runs through May 14 and there are plans to create a traveling version of the exhibit to share with students, Denninger said. Admission to the museum is free. Visit for exhibit hours and more information on associated programming.