Ellis Island Museum

The Creation of the Ellis Island Immigration Museum

The Themes and Purposes of the Ellis Island Immigration Museum

Analysis of the Ellis Island Museum

Continuing Controversies over Ellis Island

Conclusions about the Museum and an Immigrants thoughts

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The Creation of the Ellis Island Immigration Museum
The Statue of Liberty--Ellis Island fundraising activities and the Ellis Island Immigration Museum were both successful due to careful planning, consideration, and decisive actions.  Although considerable time and effort went into the planning and designing of the exhibits, the museum could be improved to better enlighten and educate its visitors.  A very important part in the planning and designing of a museum is to have correct information from credible sources, such as historians.  Problems may also occur with the placement of information and with the path on which the museum’s exhibits are explored.  When a museum or memorial is constructed, those who raise the funds and contribute large donations might try to slant the view of the museum towards their own; this leads to the corruption of the museum’s integrity.
The Department of Interior realized this and took preventative measures.  This was seen in the American Museum of Immigration (AMI), which was The Ellis Island Museum’s predecessor.  An agreement was made stating that AMI, Inc. would raise the necessary funds while the NPS would “plan, design, build, and administer the museum with the advice and counsel of the AMI.” (Holland  156)  This means that while the NPS would consider the AMI, Inc.’s advice, the museum was the NPS’s responsibility.  This separation of fundraisers from designers was also present in the Ellis Island project.  Lee Iacocca saw that a possible conflict of interest may occur if a person serves on both The Statue of Liberty--Ellis Island Centennial Commission and foundation.  His idea led to his eventual dismissal because he served on both.
The foundation did not allow substantial donors to “buy” parts of the Statue of Liberty.  However, it did allow them to “buy” buildings and rooms on Ellis Island such as the William Randolph Hearst Oral History Room.  Large donors could have their names engraved on stainless steel plaques that would be placed on the wall in the room of their choice.  But these donors, along with corporate donors such as Kodak had no say whatsoever in matters of exhibit design. (Wallace, “Ellis Island Immigration Museum.”  1029)

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The Themes and Purposes of the Ellis Island Immigration Museum
The Ellis Island Museum has several themes and purposes: the story of Ellis Island, the history of immigration, and the diversity of America’s pluralistic society.  These, along with many other factors, make it very successful.  One reason it was constructed was to “make up” for the poorly conceived American Museum of Immigration.  Ellis would “correct the errors of the past and tell the story adequately.” (Holland  159)  Unlike the AMI, the Ellis Island Museum group involved historians in the creation and design process of their museum and also provided more space for exhibits.  As a result, the museum on Ellis Island had a much higher quality then the one on Liberty Island; it also did not force certain views, such as the melting pot idea, espoused by the AMI.
What the three major interpretive themes of the Ellis Island museum should be were debated and decided upon during discussions between the foundation and historians in 1983.  The themes are
 “(1) the Ellis Island Story, which would emphasize ‘the processing and actual experience of  immigrants who came through Ellis Island’; (2) immigration history which would deal with  ‘immigration to this country,’ from the Spanish settlement of St. Augustine to current immigration,  and would discuss all aspects of immigration, including ‘changing attitudes and policies of dealing  with immigrants’; and (3) our pluralistic society, which would recognize ‘diversity of ethnic and  racial components’ and consider ‘issues of a multi-cultural society.’  It was also agreed that two  minor subjects would be dealt with: the history of the island and the architecture of the island.” (Holland  159) It was also decided that no information would be repeated throughout the exhibits, making the museum a cumulative experience.

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Analysis of the Ellis Island Museum
The quality and usefulness of the Ellis Island Museum’s films and exhibits to visitors can be determined through a critical analysis.  The interpretive themes can also be found in the museum.
“...‘Through America’s Gate’ explores the steps of the actual processing,...‘Peak Immigration  Years’ presents information concerning the origins and development of immigrant communities in  the United States from 1880 to 1924...‘Ellis Island Chronicles,’ [is] an overview of the island’s  history...‘Silent Voices,’ [is] an attempt to show [the station’s abandoned years]...‘Restoring a  Landmark,’...displays the [restoration  processes]...‘Treasures from Home,’...features cherished  objects [brought by immigrants.] ‘The Peopling of America,’ attempts a historical overview of  immigration [nationally and internationally] (Smith  88)

One factor that could detract from the learning experience is that there is no set course for viewing the exhibits.  This, combined with the designers’ decision to repeat no information can confuse wandering  visitors or leave them with erroneous impressions.  The formation of a volunteer team was underway to lead tours so that visitors get the desired experience. (Wallace, “Ellis Island Immigration Museum.”  1031)

   Analysis of the Museum's Exhibits:
    Through America's Gates
    Isle of Hope, Isle of Tears
    Peak Immigration Years
    Ellis Island Chronicles
    Peopling of America
    Treasures from Home

In “Through America’s Gates” a minor problem concerning the audio-taped recordings of immigrants was described.  Basically, some stories were too soft to be heard over the noise of the museum while others were so loud as to be annoying.  (Wallace  “Ellis Island Immigration Museum.”  1025)  Since the review, this was likely remedied.

A dispute occurred over “Isle of Hope, Isle of Tears” an award winning film dealing with the immigration drama.  Department of the Interior officials wanted to shorten the title to “Isle of Hope” so it would appear less depressing and more upbeat, but the officials met with resistance from historians who wanted a balanced view.  The title was left unchanged.  (Smith  91)

According to Judith Smith, the pictorial collection in “Peak Immigration Years” had many visitors talking about how they could relate to those pictures; the experiences of those pictured seemed familiar to them.  “But there was nothing in ‘Peak Immigration Years’ that inspired visitors to think critically about how their own experience has been shaped, or to invite visitors to ask themselves how the images themselves were shaped or why they seemed familiar.”(Smith  95) As a remedy, these questions could be displayed on the walls for viewers to think about.

“Ellis Island Chronicles” shows the island’s historical changes and describes the project.  “The relatively extensive space given to pictorial and physical evidence from Ellis Island’s abandoned years seems to be an attempt to grasp the spirit of the actual past even while applauding its disappearance in the tangible artistry and finality of the restoration.” (Smith  92)

In the “Peopling of America” Judith Smith wonders if the stories and experiences of new immigrants could be included with those of the old.  The exhibit also tells of U.S. immigration history and that Ellis was just one of many entries to the United States.  Another issue addressed by both Wallace and Smith is that the only mention of social classes deals with the first, second, and third class passengers, while there were subclass differences that existed within races themselves.  The museum also makes no mention of the social underclass such as prostitutes and gangsters.  In the exhibit, Global population flow is depicted through a globe of lights. Some of those populations are of peoples who did not journey to America of their own free will, such as slaves.  The viewpoint of slaves could have been enhanced and elaborated upon through additional text and possibly displaying of  leg irons and pictures of slave auctions.  The exhibit doesn’t impart the feeling that immigration still remains an “explosive political subject.  There is nothing there that helps citizens sort through contemporary debates over national legislation, nothing that examines the situation of today’s illegal aliens, nothing that explores current animosities toward recent arrivals. It would be perfectly possible to leave Ellis with warm feelings toward old migrants and residual resentments of gooks, spics, and towel-heads left intact.” (Wallace, “Ellis Island Immigration Museum.”  1031)

“Treasures from Home” is considered the most enjoyable exhibit because it displays contributed items that immigrants brought with them to their new land.  Although the items have special meaning to their owners, the exhibit doesn’t tell why they were important or how they were used in America--with the exception of some hand-made sheets.  The problem with the “Treasures” exhibit is in its popularity.  Some visitors go straight to this display without visiting the other exhibits, thus missing important information such as that displayed in “The Peopling of America.”  This problem could be corrected by setting a specific path to follow through the museum and encouraging visitors to follow it. (Smith)

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Continuing Controversies over Ellis Island
Controversies still exist with Ellis Island such as the struggle over control of the island between New York and New Jersey, the development of the abandoned south side of the island, and the sometimes-controversial changing exhibits of the museum.  According to “Forgotten Gateway: The Abandoned Buildings of Ellis Island” exhibit that I visited at the National Building Museum in Washington, there are many historic buildings--including the hospital--on the south side that continue to deteriorate.  “The historic structures on the south side of Ellis Island have not been lost. [But] many have reached an accelerating state of deterioration and will likely experience catastrophic structural failure within the next 5 to 10 years.” (1998 NPS report quoted in Lang) “This fall, when an expected appropriation of $2-3 million is included in the final budget, the first federal funds allocated for the south side in a half-century will be a reality.  The Park Service will use this money to begin work on a stabilization project, aiming to save as many buildings as possible.  Within a few years, it is hoped that this and other initiatives will result in the preservation of these imperiled structures.” (Lang)

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Conclusions about the Museum and an Immigrant's thoughts
By making a critical analysis of the Ellis Island Museum’s exhibitions, many weaknesses can be seen.  But future improvements may yet correct those weaknesses; they can become part of the museum’s many strengths.  The museum met its goals and presented the themes and subjects that the designers wanted; furthermore, it accomplished this with a well-balanced view, unlike the poorly-conceived museum on Liberty Island.  The museum is also successful in trying to include the visitor in the immigration experience through such means as the Oral History program, The Wall of Honor, and the planned American Family Immigration History Center which will allow visitors to trace back their immigration connections through the use of computers.

Everyone, regardless of their immigrant background, can benefit from a visit to Ellis Island and the museum, since they are important to understanding the peopling of America, as well as part of our nation’s society and culture.  A letter to me from my mother’s cousin, Ilse, who immigrated as a ten-year old from Germany with her parents, demonstrates just how powerful the immigration experience, and Ellis Island--itself--can be.

    “Three years ago I wanted to show Ingrid and Christa [her daughters] Ellis Island, because in typical  immigrant fashion, I first remembered the Statue of Liberty    (the view from our boat coming from Europe in 1950) and then recalled the bustle and fear of Ellis Island--reinforced by Fred [her  husband], TV, books, etc.  With tension and excitement we took the ferry, it docked and tearfully I stepped into the island--quickly to realize that I’d never been there.  The guide confirmed that it had closed before the three Matus’(Sachers) came.  Perhaps what is important is the symbolism all  immigrants feel who love this wonderful country.  In my heart--after the fact I was there.  The emotions must have been the same.  Clearly I experienced as a ten year old what other children lived  at Ellis Island.  We came with a few suitcases, no money.  We spoke no English and only knew from your grandmother’s mother that work as servants was available.  Our hope was for the best; we left hate, evil and war’s death.  So, Stephen, no I wasn’t there, but every shiver as we visited, every tear, every hope returned upon coming back to the symbol for what millions who were never there feel about Ellis Island.” (Ehman)
The hopes and dreams of immigrants today reflect those of yesterday, making the immigrant experience still powerful and relevant and adding impetus to protect and preserve these experiences for future generations.

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