Becoming American

Becoming American

Ellis Island's Peopling of America Center to honor diverse history

The entrance to the Ellis Island Immigration Museum Elizabeth Bland

The dramatic stories of immigration through Ellis Island have become part of the American legend – but only one part. This vast country boasts a colorful history, stretching from the arrival of the first nomadic tribes to the more recent influx of families from Asia, Central America, and the Caribbean. The Peopling of America Center, a museum scheduled to open on Ellis Island in 2011, will tell the stories of both ancient and modern immigration through interactive exhibits designed to engage visitors of all ages and backgrounds.

According to Stephen A. Briganti, president of The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, genealogy has become the second most popular hobby in America, right behind gardening. “As we’ve matured as a nation,” Briganti explained, “we’ve matured in wanting to know about our past, what people were doing prior to their arrival in this country, and what they were doing once they got here.”

In September 2008, the foundation announced its plans for the center, to be partially funded by a hefty grant of $1.5 million from the Bank of America. Although today’s Ellis Island Immigration Museum already includes a Peopling of America exhibit within the main building, the new museum will expand it into an annexed space of approximately 20,000 square feet.

The center’s goal is to fill in an enormous gap in America’s understanding of its past, present, and future. The museum will be the only place in the United States dedicated to the experience of becoming American, whether through ancestral immigration or modern journeys.

Ellis Island opened as an immigration station in 1892 and closed its doors in 1954. According to the National Park Service, during these 62 years of heavy immigration, at least 12 million immigrants passed through the building in search of a new home in America.

The Ellis Island building, which was restored and opened as a museum in 1990, is a popular destination for tourists, genealogy hobbyists, and researchers alike, and it is brimming with personality and research materials.

The faces of yesterday and today

This photo shows pro-union posters in many languages.

While the impact of the existing Ellis Island Immigration Museum is powerful, with its life-sized photographs, multilingual graffiti, and haunting, accented voices that stream through the headphones, the building still tells only part of the story of American immigration and citizenship. More than 40 percent of Americans can trace ancestry through Ellis Island, but this percentage is small, given the number of people who crossed the lands and waters before Ellis Island began to process immigrants.

Not all visitors can stand before the museum’s famous American Immigrant Wall of Honor and find a relative’s name, nor can they all uncover genealogical information on the handy terminals provided by the American Family Immigration History Center. For many, the ancestral voyage lies much deeper in the past.

“The way [the museum] is now,” Briganti said, “it tells the Ellis Island story, and that was the original intent, but we quickly learned that it had left the story of a lot of people out when we opened it in 1990. We believe that Ellis Island is symbolic of the arrival in America. It’s symbolic of the opportunities in America. It’s symbolic of the inclusiveness in America.”

According to Briganti, the Peopling of America Center will leave no group out. “We’re going back to the beginning,” he said. “We’ll be talking about the people we now call Native Americans. We’ll also be talking about people who were forced to come here.”

Briganti noted that issues of early European immigration, colonization, and slavery would be addressed in the new center. Also, he said, “we’ll skip forward to the present period where many of the people are coming from Latin America, the Caribbean, the subcontinent of Asia, and also from China and Africa.”

One of the primary goals of the new museum is to demonstrate the differences in the history of America’s population as well as the similarities of the immigrant experience. Alan M. Kraut, professor of history at American University in Washington, D.C., and chair of the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island History Committee, sees the center as “a way of bringing Americans together around the common experience of the peopling of this country.”

“The commonality is that folks have all come from somewhere else,” Kraut said. “It’s important today that the newcomers see that they are not divorced of that experience, but that they are very much a part of that experience. We want to dissipate the nativism that’s often in the air these days.”

One controversy surrounding modern immigration is the issue of lack of documentation. “People think undocumented workers is a modern thing,” Kraut said. “It’s not an unknown phenomenon, but certainly the notion of an unauthorized entry is not something that is brand-new.” As the center focuses on citizenship, he said, it will also include the history of record-keeping and points of entry into the United States.

High-tech bells and whistles

In the Peopling of America Center, visitors will travel through an exhibit on the history of migration to the United States from the colonial era to the opening of the Ellis Island Immigration Station. Using a theme familiar to visitors – a journey – the exhibits aim to evoke a sense of movement, of uprooting lives, change, struggle, confrontation, community building, and adaptation.

The Peopling of America Center has Edwin Schlossberg, principal designer at ESI Design in Manhattan, on its team. A world-renowned interactive engineer, Schlossberg creates striking multimedia experiences and has worked with many children’s museums as well as large corporations.

In the new center, visitors will be greeted by a large, radiant globe with pulsating strands of light that trace world migration. In addition, the exhibit will feature stations where visitors can listen to radio broadcasts from various countries, use touch-screens to view demographic and architectural changes in cities, and calculate transportation times over the decades according to place of origin, decade, and vehicle.

“We’ve designed the Peopling of America in two areas,” said Schlossberg. His floor plan follows up the global migration exhibit with one of the pre-Ellis Island years. “It focuses on what we call ‘leaving,'” he explained, “all the feelings and ideas that the people have when they leave a place. The journey. The contact back.” According to Schlossberg, this area will center on groups that immigrated before 1880, and will chronicle the lives, parting circumstances, and journeys of families from each of those groups.

The upstairs area will be dedicated to the post-Ellis Island years, from 1955 to the present. Again, the focus of this section is the “journey, arrival, and contact back home,” he said. The exhibit follows the story of six of the largest groups of immigrants in more recent decades.

As Schlossberg described it, this exhibit will be designed to have the visual impact of a moment in the 1960s or 1970s and show the unique challenges of contemporary immigration and cultural adjustment. “It used to take months and years [to immigrate],” he noted. Just like past waves of immigrants, modern newcomers face linguistic challenges, which Schlossberg’s design also addresses.

Because many prospective visitors will likely originate from non-European countries such as South America, Africa, and Asia, Schlossberg’s program offers activities for a variety of ethnic groups. “It makes it a much fuller experience for the American audience,” he said.

While plans are for the museum to be educational and entertaining for all ages, Schlossberg said that it could evoke unexpected emotions. “It’s very hard to predict how people will feel about their history,” he said. “They feel more in touch with their relatives. They feel sometimes sad, sometimes happy, sometimes both.”

Shared visions

Schlossberg’s previous museum work was part of the inspiration for the Bank of America’s generous grant, explained Ernesto Anguilla, spokesperson for Bank of America. “It was a no-brainer for the Bank of America to become involved in this [project],” he said, pointing out that the bank has a history of giving grants and free-of-charge lending to museums. In addition, it houses one of the largest corporate art collections in the world.

According to Anguilla, the bank’s branding as the “Bank of Opportunity” reflects its financial involvement in immigrant history: The Bank of Italy in San Francisco, which eventually merged with the Bank of America, was one of the first banks to lend money to immigrants. “That really opened the door for many new citizens to get access to capital in order to help them achieve their financial goals,” said Anguilla. “It’s emblematic of the role our company has played throughout our nation’s history, and how it’s important to protect our nation’s heritage through grants like this.”

But is it good for the Jews?

Sadie Schultz, the grandmother of Flora Frank of Fair Lawn.

The Jewish spirit is immediately apparent at the current Ellis Island Immigration Museum. Among the Jewish historic items are posters of Yiddish-speaking union workers and an image of a woman stirring an industrial-sized pot in the building’s first kosher kitchen, a special service established in 1911 to accommodate the observant Jews who exited the steamships, undernourished for lack of kosher food. In the graffiti exhibits, scattered among the Greek, Russian, and Italian etchings, are Star of David symbols.

Many of Ellis Island’s 12 million immigrants were Jewish. Kraut estimated the number of Jewish immigrants at more than two million. During times of peak immigration, according to Briganti, many Eastern European Jews came to the United States seeking not only refuge from pogroms, but also opportunities. “They settled all over the New York City area,” he said, “and make up a large portion of that population today.”

Of particular interest for the Jews who descended from these immigrants are the research facilities such as the American Family Immigration History Center (AFIHC), founded in 2001, which is accessible at the museum or online at The AFIHC contains information for 25 million immigrants, passengers, and crew who passed through Ellis Island between 1892 and 1924.

In addition, the museum includes a library and oral history studio where visitors may contribute pieces of their own history. “There were a lot of Jewish immigrants that had recorded their stories in the library,” said Schlossberg, adding that Jewish families are “very fully represented in the immigration center [AFIHC] and the rest of Ellis Island Museum.”

Thus, the Ellis Island Museum is an obvious attraction for Jews with history from that peak era, but Briganti also made note of other waves of Jewish immigration that could be addressed in the upcoming Peopling of America Center. “There were a large number of German Jews who came [to the United States] in the mid-1800s,” he explained. “They were the first to come of the Jews. Many of the people who owned the businesses that were all over the south and up in New Jersey and New York came during that period of time.”

Furthermore, as Jews continue to immigrate, many Jews who are already citizens are entering into mixed marriages and blended families and even adopting children from other countries and of other races. Ancestry becomes all the more complex for the modern Jewish family, and the Peopling of America Center plans to represent the complexity of the American multi-ethnic experience.

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