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Ellis Island Museum to Update the Story of Immigration in America

Monday, 27 April 2015

Everywhere in America, immigration is an unending story. Everywhere, that is, except at the Ellis Island Immigration Museum, where the story ends in 1954, when the immigrant processing and detention station there was closed.

Next month, however, the museum will leap more than 60 years forward with the opening of two new galleries in what had once been the station’s kitchen and laundry. They pick up the narrative where it was left off.

The intent is made clear immediately in the first gallery, which borrows the aesthetics of a 1960s airport, with a blue-and-silver palette and timeline displays arrayed on what look like baggage carousels.

Though the exhibition unabashedly celebrates the idea of arrival and naturalization, visitors expecting a sentimental view of the journey to the United States or a gauzy salute to American immigration policies will find some sharp rebukes.

For instance, a panel titled “Feet People” says that until a half century ago, when caps were imposed, Mexican workers had routinely crossed into the United States to fill agricultural, construction and service jobs, because there were no immigration quotas on other independent nations in the Americas.

Further, the panel notes, the Border Patrol “began militarizing the 2,000-mile United States-Mexico border and deporting any unauthorized immigrants” in 1993.

“This fortification has pushed men, women and even children, who seek to cross on foot without documentation, even deeper into remote and dangerous terrain,” the panel continues. “They cross deserts and mountain ranges on foot and swim contaminated irrigation ditches. They crawl through sewer pipes and tunnels. To find work and reunite with family members, hundreds risk their lives every week to reach the United States.”

It was left to Stephen A. Briganti, the president and chief executive of the private Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation Inc., to state the obvious, as he led a tour of the galleries on Friday:

“When people want to do something, they figure a way to do it, don’t they?”

The private foundation finances and operates the museum, within the Statue of Liberty National Monument.

Mr. Briganti, 73, has worked for the foundation since it was begun in 1982, but his connection to Ellis Island goes back to the early 20th century when his mother, Celeste, then an infant, arrived there with her parents, Pasquale and Josephine, from Posillipo, a suburb of Naples, Italy.

Mr. Briganti is the first to note, however, that the museum cannot remain frozen in the period from 1892 to 1954, when the immigration station operated.

“We would lose visitors because we had become out of date,” he said.

In 2008, the foundation announced a $20 million project to expand the museum to the periods before and after Ellis Island was an immigration station. The exhibitions were created by ESI Design, whose president is Edwin Schlossberg.

The galleries covering pre-Ellis Island history, which opened in 2011, acknowledge that more than half of those who arrived in the Americas from the 17th century to the early 19th century came against their wills — mostly as slaves.

Then, Ellis Island was hit so hard by Hurricane Sandy that it could not reopen until October 2013, a year later. The storm surge flooded the basement of the main building, which holds the vast, tiled Registry Room and the galleries. Though no artifacts were destroyed, entire mechanical, electrical and computer systems had to be replaced. Mr. Briganti said two years of progress were lost as a result.

Clearly, though, he preferred to dwell on the imminent opening of the post-1954 galleries. He pointed out a sign with the institution’s new name, Ellis Island National Immigration Museum, reflecting its broadened mission.

Among the more arresting features of the new galleries are kiosks on which immigrants tell their stories, in videos produced by the History Channel.

Some images are almost life size, conveying a sense that one is having a conversation with, say, Jean-Pierre Kamwa of Cameroon, who fled his country for fear he would be killed by the government and appealed for asylum when he landed at Kennedy Airport in 1999. He was instead confined for five months.

By his own account, Mr. Kamwa was finally granted asylum.

The face on another kiosk is that of Michael Donovan, a member of the foundation board. He is a British citizen and a native of Panama who grew up in Costa Rica and Peru before moving to England. He arrived in the United States in the mid-1960s, worked briefly for IBM and then founded Donovan Data Systems, a forerunner of Mediaocean, of which he is executive chairman.

“I’d like to become an American citizen,” Mr. Donovan says on the video. On May 19, a day before the new galleries open to the public, he plans to travel to Ellis Island and, with nine other men and women, become just that.

Source: The NYT

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