Ellis Island’s revamped museum offers updated look at immigration experience

Visitors walk in The Registry Room Ellis Island on May 7, 2015.
Visitors walk in The Registry Room Ellis Island on May 7, 2015. Photo Credit: Douglas Lyle Thompson

The newest chapter of Ellis Island will begin later this month with the long-awaited opening of the museum’s revamped exhibit space.

The “Peopling of America” exhibit headlines the museum’s $20 million reopening on May 20 and the new phase explores the immigrant story from the time after the famous center shut its doors in 1954.

Stephen Briganti, the president of the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, said the aim of the exhibition is to show visitors the rich history of immigration to America and how it continues to help define the country.

“What they’ve been going through in 1650 is the same as today,” he said. “There’s the long journey, the struggle but in the end they become a part of the American fabric.”

The National Parks Service acquired the island in 1965 and in 1990, the facility was rechristened as a museum that featured artifacts and records from all of the people who passed through the island. Superstorm Sandy severely damaged its infrastructure, prompting a nearly year-long closure and a two-year delay to the construction of the gallary and exhibit.

More than 21,000 artifacts had to be relocated because the storm destroyed the climate-controlled booths that they were housed in.

The exhibit begins with an interactive video globe that displaces movies and facts about the history of immigration going as far back as the ice age. Once inside, they can check out the ongoing galleries that represent immigration from the colonial years through 1890. It includes first-person accounts of newcomers and interactive displays that represent the period where people from all over the world would arrive to New York via boat.

The “post-ellis” wing takes that concept to the modern era with a state-of-the-art design that resembles an airport, includingh metal gallery walls that resemble a baggage claim and interactive displays that mimic departure time monitors.

Clay Gish, of ESI design which helped to craft the exhibit, said the exhibit highlights the journey in five stages: leaving, making the trip, arrival, struggle and survival and building a nation.

“We wanted people to get close to the story and feel their experience,” she said.

In addition to video testimonials from recent immigrants, the exhibit includes games that show how immigration has evolved, information on the legal and cultural barriers newer Americans face today. The exhibit also includes a 10 question citizenship test, multiple choice of course.

The museum is free, however, visitors will have to purchase ferry tickets to get to the island from Battery Park City. About 2 million people are expected to visit the museum annually, and Briganti said hopes that visitors will gain new insight into the American dream.

“It gives people an appreciation for the next group of immigrants,” he said.