ELLIS ISLAND MUSEUM OF IMMIGRATION
For years I had been dreaming of the day that my ship, much like “the boat” that my grandmother took over from Italy in 1929, would dock at Ellis Island and I would disembark to find an enchanted world left in-tact from the peak years of immigration, with the dust of my hopeful family still settling on the tiles of the port. I was in search of a nostalgia that I had conjured up for over 30 years, hoping to be filled with the hope and promise that my family had once had, coming to the land of opportunity, a feeling that has since turned into a stale, opaque essence. My journey was instead a chaotic jumble of confusion, cattle herding, and all-in-all a lackluster experience.
The trip began searching for a way to get to the the Island, which meant scouring the internet for the museum’s website. There were so many sites that paraded as official, and the official site was so generic “tourist” that it was hard to believe that I was in the right place and not about to give my credit card number to some kind of scam. I should have taken this as a sign that things had changed at the island since 1954. (Even now as I look through for the website again, I have found the National Park’s official site for the Island. There needs to be consolidation.) It was clear that this was not going to be a museum of nostalgic ambience, but more of a tourist, “stand-here-for-photo,” or buy a pressed coin sort of place. After digging through the messy UI, I felt like a digital archeologist trying to put the bones of an unfamiliar species together. I found the official company for cruises to the Island, Statue Cruises. Apparently Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty came as a set (#two4one). It seemed like the ticket for the cruise was a ticket to the museum. I still wasn’t quite sure how it all worked so I decided to just head down and hope for the best.
At this point, my expectations were high. The weather was fabulous. The crowds were huge but, it was Labor Day Weekend, so it was expected. Despite the line that wrapped around Castle Clinton National Monument, I was able to make it through, find a convenient pre-cruise bathroom that was larger than expected, and pop through security to board the cruise. However, after going through security, I had a moment of panic that I had purchased the wrong ticket. They never asked me to specify the Statue of Liberty or Ellis Island, and my ticket, I had just noticed, said “Statue of Liberty-Grounds ONLY.” Luckily some seasoned Islanders informed me that the ticket was good for both. However, the tickets and explanations could have been a bit clearer and labeled better.
The excitement was building up, as well as the crowds. The museum experience essentially began as we left the dock. A recorded voiceover gently delivered history as we crossed the river to Lady Liberty. Alas, I was on my way, foraging through the waters that the Ferraras, Guarinos, Manicones and Perrones before me had sailed through a century ago. It wasn’t until we docked at Ellis Island, that the dream began to shatter.
By the time I had reached Ellis Island I was exhausted. At this point I had been trying to get to the museum for several hours. By the time you go from door to door here, you’ve been through a lot. It’s not a museum visit, it is a museum adventure. It’s like climbing a mountain to see a view. It takes work to get there. You don’t just pull up, park and enjoy the exhibits.
The crowd control turned into a bulge of cattle herding with no order, just shoving. Shouts from staff to “Fill in every available spot in the queue” gave the green light for middle-aged women and other aggressive line cutters to push through ahead of those who have no respect for other people. (This happened more so on the return embarkment of the cruise. In retrospect I wish I had used my elbows more to my advantage.)
Welcome to the Ellis Island Museum of Immigration. The area was beautiful, clean cut, and although the crowds were thick, it appeared as though we had landed on a well groomed ghost town. The museum building starts off in the baggage room where the newly arrived future American citizens would enter to check their baggage. The first floor was where you picked up your audio tour headset from the staff that was tired, overwhelmed from crowds and generally over the whole experience. The first floor is where you can pick which of the multiple exhibits you want to visit that span 3 floors. After the journey there, the idea of going through what seemed like an endless amount of options was very overwhelming. So I started where I was naturally most comfortable – the bathroom. It was easy to find but small and aired on the side of gross (I shall spare details). And also all the the stall doors were so high you could probably see the users sitting down, so I beg to ask…what was the point of the doors anyway? I next ate at the cafe where the staff was incredibly helpful and wonderful.
I strolled through the gift shop that was stocked with items that tourists would expect to find. But also I found one of the best interactive exhibits in the museum and I wish they had done more with this. There was a touch screen table top where you could choose which child you wanted to be. You went through an interactive question and answer session and took a digital journey through what it would have been like to be that kid passing through Ellis. This was great. It gave insight, feelings, and put you in someone’s shoes. THIS was great.
Out to the hub again, I decided to start on the first floor. I will give a break down of each floor and its experience.
FLOOR ONE: A Walkthrough of the History of Immigration of the early days 1550-1890. I started listening to the audio tour and shut it off immediately. Listening to that while trying to read the thick, wordy captions while trying to navigate the crowd was just overload. Basically this exhibit was pictures, drawings and words. Lots of reading. Lots of text. Perhaps children would not get much stimulation from this and drift off quickly.
The highlights of this floor were:
-The graph showing the immigration trends and peaks
-The John Muir Special Exhibit – a lot of words. They could have made this more robust, visually, by embedding the words in physical tree structures to make one feel like they were in a national park, maybe having interactive audio kiosks to hear his words in his voice (or voiceover).
-The outdoor monument with an alphabetical list of names of immigrants (who may or may not have come through Ellis). It was quiet, outside in the fresh air, and a little more uncharted than the inside exhibits. I could reach out and tough the names of these people who may or may not have been my family members.
FLOOR 2: You began in another grand open space, much like Grand Central with high ceilings. The exhibit on this floor was a walkthrough of the process a newly arrived immigrant would experience from the health checks to interrogations to possible deportation. It was a room to room walk through, each room with a different step along the way. There were artifacts in the rooms, but again, lots of text. Although I was walking through a process, it didn’t feel like I was experiencing it. There were installations where you could pick up phones and hear people talking about their first-hand experiences at that point in the process.
Highlights of this floor:
-The interactive exhibit where you are put in the shoes of the court to decided whether a young boy should be able to stay in the US to work for his brother or be sent back to his country. This was fabulous. I wish there had been more of this.
-The artifacts- luggage, documents, etc
-Wall graffiti, where new paint and walls were torn away to expose writing that immigrants had written as messages and signatures on the walls. This was also found on the third floor as well.
FLOOR 3: This floor had more of a personal touch, giving insights into the Island’s history with models, artifacts found when they came to restore the museum. You could see glimpses into the building’s past just by looking momentarily at an old piano and set of crutches. I kept wondering who might have used them and where they are now. Were they deported? Do I know their grandchildren? Did they even make it out of the island?
Highlights of the floor:
-A restoration of sleeping room where those help up at the Island would sleep – three levels of hammock-like beds.
-An exhibit featuring items and artifacts of families that immigrated to the US.
-Wall of framed music sheets/books about the different music and parodies that came from this era
If I could give the museum a one-word summary, I would call it standard. Elaborating on that I would say it was nothing out of the ordinary. It was a great informational trip through history. I enjoyed the exhibits and found a lot of useful information. It was a start. It was too much text, too much written word, not enough visual. I needed more. It was NOT ENOUGH OF AN EXPERIENCE. I could read all of that from the comforts of my home, the internet, a library. Maybe I was blinded or maybe I was inspired by this book I read over the summer, The Progress City Primer, where the author talks about Disney’s America, a Disney park that never made it through beyond conception that was to feature an Ellis Island replica. (Read another take on that here.) Perhaps I am craving that full-bodied experience. Because Ellis Island is the actual space and is home real history, it is ripe for embedding immersive experiences for to the visitors which can be more powerful than any kind of parody or replication.
Learn by doing. Learn by experiencing.
Perhaps Ellis Island was not really about the museum itself but more about the full experience from the cruise to the port. But I needed more on the island. I needed to FEEL like I had made that trip from abroad. I wanted to feel like I was coming to a new place. I wanted to feel more about what it was like to be an immigrant coming through the island.
I would remove words and rely more on feeling and experience, putting the visitor through the actual process (sped up). They enter and are immediately in line for baggage. Perhaps they have the option to choose an identity of a real immigrant as they take their journey through the museum. Those who work there bring them through the immigration process, do a “health check,” or at least have them watch one (actors). This can give the staff more of an organic role in the process than just “Here is your headset, what language do you need. Next cattle, please.” At least have this “what it was like to go through Ellis Island” for one part of the process. Disney creates environments with elaborate sets and props. Ellis Island is gifted with the actual building and real artifacts. Although some of these have to be kept in climate controlled areas, there are certainly ways to capitalize on what is already in possession and create a themed experience that is more fulfilling and can reach children of all ages. I remember experiences and feelings from childhood more so than words on a page.
If I were to create a “special” exhibit, it would focus on “the boat” and the ride over. I would create an experience where you would be part of a group of people coming from abroad, and would ride through a few moments of the boat journey. What was it like? What were the fears? My aunt interviewed those who went through this process and I heard of a story where one woman lost her baby while on board and feared what her husband, waiting in America would do or feel once he met her. Or if he would even be there to begin with! People didn’t even know if there would be people waiting on the other end. I would want to craft an experience that translates this feeling, this emotion of the immigrants that would stick in people’s minds for a good amount of time.
This post is long, but Ellis Island and immigration through New York hold a special place in my heart since a child. In a perfect world I could do something to make this experience come to life more, to not let the feeling of coming to a new place in a time where communication and travel was less safe and harder to achieve, in a time where dreams were still magical and hope glistened in the waves that took them to America. I still have that dream somewhere, somehow and want to access it before it too, dims from the experiences of life.
THE TENEMENT MUSEUM
In further search of the essence of nostalgia for a past I never experienced, but long to find, I took a visit to the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side. Over the summer I worked on the LES and passed by a building where clothes were hanging from “the line,” as we called it growing up. I thought, “Hey, people still do this!” And to my surprise it turns out this was part of the Tenement Museum, a museum that celebrates the rich history of a tenement building that house immigrants and New Yorkers from the late 1800s to 1935 when it closed.
When I first discovered the museum, the website offered a very clear indication of what would be expected. It was a tour-based experience with several tour options. Each tour needs to be pre-booked online or on site, and tours do sell out. There is a finite number of ways to experience this place and before you go you need to craft your own experience in the order and availability that you want.
The format of the museum experience was a leader-guided tour of about 10-15 people that began outside of the building and we all entered the tenement together as if we were residents. Upon entering the building we all sat down heard a brief history and the rules of the museum and were immediately brought into the story of the building. Each one of us introduced ourselves and where we were from and were encouraged to bring our stories into the tour. Its as if we were being added to the historical fabric of what made the city. Several of us did have stories and one man who I spoke with afterward was quite the storyteller.
From the moment of entering the building you were drawn into the experience by the natural smell of the space, a musty old smell. It was perfect to set the tone of the experience. It smelled old. Well, it smelled like what we think and what we have been conditioned to think what old smells like. This “old” smell does not necessarily equal what the tenement smelled like in 1935. But maybe it does. But nevertheless it set the tone.
Within 5 minutes of the experience I was already feeling a tinge of emotion and connection to the place. It was very real. Very original. The building was left in its original condition from walls to staircase, to soot covered wall decorations. The paint was peeled. The ceilings were stained. The original staircase carried us magically to the second floor, deeper into the experience. The condition of the tenement was a vessel of transportation that took us back to the late 1800s to 1935. Having this original, untouched realness brought a dimension to the experience that really brought you into the story more. You could feel the history and the energy of the people who once lived within the walls. In other words, although old and crumbling, the building felt very much alive.
With each stop on the tour, the building and its residents reveal themselves and further color in the reality of the experience. You are taken on a journey through the lives of several families and experience the apartments as they would have had it set up. In the apartment of the Baldizzi family, who had lived in the tenement until 1935 when it closed, a recording is played of Josephine Baldizzi, who was there as a young child. As you listen to her story and you feel as though she is in the room with you, talking directly to you. She explains small details about the apartment that she remembers and as she reveals these tidbits of information, you can see what she is talking about in the room, as if a spotlight hits them (but really, the words are the spotlight).
As mentioned earlier, the visitors are asked to become an active part of the tour. The interactions were analog, verbal, all with a personal human touch. The tour guide would introduce stories and ask us questions and for our feed back. We were interactive, bouncing stories and thoughts among each other in the group. We didn’t have to press a physical button or sensor, it happened organically as a group. The guide also passed around laminated photographs and documents that illustrated the stories and put the characters and details directly in our hands. We were also encouraged to read documents out loud to the group.
1/3 women over 60
1 man over 60
3 internationals (young), 2/3 Men
2-3 other young women
Before moving forward with the tour, we were all offered sound enhancing devices and language scripts for those needed them. Since it was a hot day we were offered water and hand held fans (like one may have used in the tenement heydays – sort of).
To use the bathrooms you needed to alert the guide and she would have to call an escort to bring you to one, for the safety of you and the building. Inconvenient, but at least they had running water if you did have to go!
There were no captions on objects or rooms. We relied on the storytelling and the captions on the laminated documents and speeches that were passed around. The only caption was on the outside of the museum. In this particular museum, captions would have detracted from the natural organic feeling from the experience,
I can describe museum in the following words:
The Tenement Museum was a great compliment to Ellis Island and filled in the nostalgia void that was missing. It was everything the Ellis Island museum was not – it used real space to transfer real stories. Though it was not my nostalgia, I certainly felt feelings.