Volume 20, Number 40 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | September 29 - October 5, 2010
Enhancing Ellis Island’s immigration experience
BY Aline Reynolds
Ellis Island will soon have a new tourist attraction that will add even more perspective to the immigration experience.
The Statue of Liberty – Ellis Island Foundation is expanding its museum to make room for the new, 20,000-square-foot, Peopling of America Center. The new space will include an interactive series of exhibits that illustrate the “push-pull” factors of 20th century immigration: the immigrants’ motivations for leaving home and the opportunities that drew them to America. The exhibits will also document immigrants’ travels and their experiences upon arrival to the U.S.
Community Board 1’s Waterfront Committee unanimously passed a resolution last week requesting additional funding for the center, which has $18 of the $20 million needed for completion. Major contributions have come from Bank of America, the Ford Foundation, and the Hearst Foundation. The Statue of Liberty – Ellis Island Foundation is considering applying for part of the $17 million worth of grants for cultural and community enhancement made available last week by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation.
“We’re reviewing the guidelines to see if we fit them,” Zitko said.
But the foundation isn’t waiting for the remaining two million to get started. Construction of the center will begin in October, at the earliest, and production of the video and audio components is already underway.
Slated to open in the first half of 2012, the center will move into the island’s main building, currently occupied by the National Park Service. The museum will be renamed the National Museum of Immigration once it opens.
“We’re picking up in 1954 and telling the story going forward of contemporary migration,” said Peg Zitko, vice president of public affairs at the Statue of Liberty – Ellis Island Foundation.
There will also be an interactive timeline and graphs chronicling the history of U.S. immigration dating back to the 1700s. Video slips and audio stations scattered around the center will “provide a more intimate, emotional experience, giving visitors a chance to hear first-hand accounts from immigrants and those they encountered along the way,” according to a written description of the center. The new space will have a sound chamber playing audio excerpts from immigrants’ letters and diaries.
One section will replicate the interior of a sailing ship, where visitors “can explore the different ways migrants journeyed” across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, according to the description. And in the next gallery, “the setting, reminiscent of a dock or train station, suggests the chaos of arrival in a strange place.”
Some exhibits will touch on illegal immigration, showing video footage of people crossing national borders without proper documentation.
“You can’t tell the history of contemporary immigration without touching on it,” Zitko said.
The center will also have a citizenship gallery, where visitors can opt to take a national citizenship test and learn about the requirements to become an American citizen. The gallery will also shed light on the distribution of ethnic groups around the country.
The current museum will undergo a redesign of the main building’s entry hall, which formerly served as a baggage room for immigrants. The future hall will feature a radiant globe underscoring migration patterns throughout human history. Zitko said the globe is meant to indicate “a bigger story, beyond Ellis Island.”
The existing museum focuses on the 12 million foreigners entering American soil between 1892 and 1954 via Ellis Island. Though arguably deemed the largest human migration in modern history, only 40 percent of Americans can trace their roots back to ancestors that landed on the island.
“We’re a nation of immigrants, so it’s really only part of our story,” Zitko said. “With the new center, we’ll be telling the story of all those arrivals—the Mayflower, forced migration, the Native Americans—going all the way back to the early arrivals of the continent up to the Ellis Island era,” she said.
The immigration museum opened in 1990, less than four decades after it served as an entryway to the U.S. The island was then used to house suspected foreign enemies during World War II until it was abandoned in November 1954.
Two million people visit Ellis Island every year and the new center hopes to attract an additional 400,000.
“I think what people will walk away with is the similarities of why people came and continue to come to this country: for freedoms, opportunities to escape persecution, and to have a better life for their children,” Zitko said.