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Ellis Island’s mental health tests were simple puzzles designed to be as culturally and linguistically neutral as possible. In theory, they quickly weeded out anyone who needed a closer cognitive look.
The classic twofer of New York Harbor is typically viewed as nerdy little brother Ellis overshadowed by big sister Liberty, who enlightens the world. But from a museum perspective it is the reverse. Ellis Island’s outstanding National Museum of Immigration tells the story of a unique era in American history, in the space where that era unfolded. Twelve million people got their starts in the United States right here.
The Ellis Process
The Museum that currently occupies Ellis Island is a masterpiece on several levels. It’s a brilliant case of adaptation and reuse, recreating for tourists a sense of what the experience might was like for immigrants as modern visitors retrace their steps through the facility.
When the ferry drops you off at Ellis Island, you enter the building very much like would-be immigrants did, on the luggage level. Here they would leave their worldly possessions behind them (temporarily), as the first step of their processing began.
Immigrants then proceeded up a flight of stairs, which open onto the grandest space in the main building. The Registry Hall is huge and open, with a Guastavino tiled ceiling arching far overhead and large windows flooding the place with light and views of the promised land. People make a lot of the architecture of Ellis. Really, though, it’s no grander than a contemporary train station — and served the same purpose. Efficiently moving large numbers of people along on their journey.
If the aspiring immigrant seemed healthy and sane and unlikely to be some sort of anarchist, it took remarkably little time for processing, after which, voila, welcome to America. Only 2 percent lacked the required physical, mental, or political health and were prevented from entry. Even if someone was ill, if they could treat that person on Ellis Island, they did. And then they let them in.
Just typing the phrase “processing people” makes me feel uneasy. In my head it invokes experiences far more like those remembered at the Museum of Jewish Heritage than anything remotely positive. But with so many people wanting to come here America’s immigration bureaucracy had to refine the process down to a science. And for the opportunity to be “processed” so many people left so much behind them, took a significant risk, invested sometimes all their wealth in a ticket across the sea.
Deepening the Story
Past the Registry Hall, the rooms get more cramped, and a lot more institutional, with tiled hallways designed for easy maintenance in the face of heavy use.
In that series of former offices, courtrooms, and examination rooms, an exhibit delves into the Ellis Island experience. “Through America’s Gate” describes the inspection processes in greater detail, including:
- Detailing the various exams;
- What the food was like (for many, a crash course in American cuisine);
- Medical care on the island;
- The political views that might get you rejected; and
- The island experience for children.
The stats are astounding. For example, from 1900-1954, 3,500 people, including 1,400 children, died on Ellis Island. And 355 babies were born there.
A separate exhibit on the second floor covers “Peak Immigration Years.” It speaks to Ellis’s heyday and the impact of immigrants on the labor market and popular culture, as well as American sentiments both in favor of and opposed to the tide of immigration. Although today’s would-be new Americans come from different points of origin, in many ways things haven’t changed much.
Abandoned Ellis and Family Stories
The third floor includes the Bob Hope Memorial Library (Bob Hope, born 1903, emigrated from England, via Ellis, in 1908). It also includes:
- Temporary exhibitions
- A reconstructed dormitory room
- An exhibit on Ellis Island’s decline and restoration
- An exhibit looking in depth at specific immigrant families, where they came from, where they went, and what they brought with them of their families and lives in the Old Country.
Those last two are just fantastic.
Ellis Island closed in 1954 and in those days they clearly didn’t think much of packing up trying to re-use stuff, much less selling it for collectibles. The place slid into slow decay, a dusty time capsule of old medical equipment, office furniture, pianos, coat racks… you name it.
Somehow, in its isolation, no one seems to have bothered Ellis much. The “Silent Voices” exhibit collects items the restorers found, more or less as they found them, and preserves them behind glass, along with fantastic photos of the place looking extremely haunted and forlorn. So much dust! It reminded me of my apartment.
The “Treasures From Home” exhibition vividely depicts the impact their pivotal Ellis Island moments had on the people and families who passed through here. It’s one thing to read that 12 million people started their American lives in this place. It’s another to read and hear about the Sicurellas, the Schneiders, and other specific families, who have donated books, clothes, documents, photos, all lovingly displayed in cases that tell capsule versions of their family stories.
Finally, Ellis Island Chronicles tells the story of the island itself, from its discovery by Europeans to its stint as Fort Gibson to the phases of landfilling that took a small spot of land and eventually tripled its size.
Immigration Before and After the Ellis Island Era
Part of the ground floor of the building hosts an exhibit on pre-Ellis Island immigration to the United States, including traders, religious dissidents, and slaves.
Another part of the ground floor discusses immigration post-Ellis, and what it’s like for people today. A very timely topic. It includes a brief interactive sample of the current citizenship test, which I’m relievedto say I passed with a perfect score. I’m an American! Huzzah.
Like Liberty, Ellis Island offers a free audioguide, and I highly recommend it. The stories are very well told, and, particularly in the “Treasures From Home” exhibit, offer an opportunity to hear immigrants describe their experience (or their parents’ or grandparents’ experiences) in their own words.
Child of Immigrants
I have long wondered if I have ancestors who passed through Ellis. Mom’s side of the family emigrated well before it opened in 1892. Dad’s side, though, probably did get processed there.
Unfortunately, I never talked with those grandparents about it, and they’re no longer around to interrogate. Inspired by my visit to Ellis, I’ve spent some time with its own online resources, as well as my ancestry.com account.
I’m pretty sure that Jozef and Susanna Laszlo, who departed on the Graf Waldersee from Hamburg in early March of 1909 are my father’s father’s parents.
Ellis Island has a particularly deep meaning if an ancestor passed through its hallowed halls. But even if not, it’s a moving monument and museum just the same.
There are precious few things that the United States has ever done that could be called an unalloyed good. But in my mind Ellis Island stands at the very pinnacle of American, well, goodness. It irritates me that some people dislike what the Ellis Island story because 2% of would-be immigrants were rejected, or because there was a mental test, or because of the racist treatment of Asian immigrants during the Ellis era.
And yes, that last one is inexcusable; the Museum of Chinese in America tells that painful story really well. But it’s a mistake to let the fact that U.S. immigration policy in the early 20th century could’ve been better undermine just how good it was.
Is it worth becoming the time and effort it takes (lines, security, waiting, a boat, more lines) to visit Ellis (and Liberty) Island?
The Ellis Museum, like its sister at the Statue of Liberty, does suffer from crowding issues. I felt both huddled and massed at spots in the “Through America’s Gate” exhibit. And I did yearn to breathe free. Fortunately, though, the rest of the museum’s exhibits presented no difficulties. I think many people visit with a time constraint, rush through the highlights, and split.
However, anyone with a remote, passing curiosity about the United States and what makes — or what made or what might make — it great needs to visit Ellis Island. It’s a well executed, persuasive, enlightening, entertaining, and inspirational place. It feels haunted in the best possible way. I ended my visit reflecting on the millions of people who risked everything to come to this insane, liberating, infuriating, optimistic place where I happened to be born.
One last note, Ellis Island has started offering very limited (and quite expensive) hard-hat tours of the unrestored parts of the Island. I didn’t do it this time, but I really want to. As a way to see old-school Ellis, and get away from the crowds, I suggest exploring the option.
|Ellis Island, New York Harbor
|General Admission: Ferry fare plus museum entry $18.50 (includes both Liberty and Ellis Islands)
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