The World in Your Neighborhood: Immersion in the Immigrant Experience

The new Ellis Island Museum addresses the national experience of immigration in addition to the history of Ellis Island.
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To try to encompass five centuries of immigration to the United States in a few succinct but evocative experiences, one might land on a number of concepts. Speed might be one of them, along with distance and courage. But what could possibly unify the trials and triumphs of so many distinct individuals merging into one multifaceted culture?

How they got here, of course.

“No matter when they came, or how they arrived, immigrants made a journey,” explains Clay Gish, the creative director and historian who with ESI Design and the History Channel helped to triple the exhibit program for the recently renamed and repurposed Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration. “They left everything that was familiar, made the trip, arrived, experienced the struggles of adaptation, and together, all immigrants have contributed to the fabric of American culture.”

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That’s a lot to tell in one museum, but with the new mandate to address the “national” experience of immigration in addition to the history of Ellis Island itself came a new purpose of appealing to the great many visitors who themselves are at various stages of the journey.

The museum’s revamp has occurred in two very distinct phases. The first set of new galleries, “Journeys: The Peopling of America,” opened in 2011 and represents the “pre-Ellis Island” phase of immigration from the 1550s to 1890.

The second and most recent phase includes exhibits built to portray “The Journey: New Eras of Immigration,” covering the years after Ellis Island closed its processing operations, 1954 to the present. This section of galleries only opened to the public in the spring of this year--its high-tech, lively exhibits depicting the “post-Ellis Island” experience--as they were delayed by the destruction caused by Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

Fortunately, the museum’s exhibits and artifacts were unaffected by the storm, but the infrastructure of the buildings was ruined, so all the phase-two, post-Ellis Island exhibits that were primed and ready for rollout were instead rolled up and stored at the builder’s facility in upstate New York. However they were very much a treasure for ESI Design to open again in 2014 in preparation for a 2015 opening. Gish described the experience as similar to finding great work stored in the attic. “I forgot we did that!” was the joyful sentiment.

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The exhibits were built with longevity and permanence in mind, of course. With the History Channel on board to underwrite production of content and experienced exhibit technologists Electrosonic charting the course of the interactive audiovisual designs, Gish and the team at ESI treated the post-Ellis Island galleries as reflective of the change in immigration styles over the centuries. The new galleries tell of how people of the world arrive in the United States in an era where airports and borders are the point of entry, rather than New York Harbor.

Now installed and open to the public in the former Kitchen and Laundry Building on the island, the New Eras of Immigration galleries immerse visitors in the five common stages of the immigrant journey also highlighted in the earlier Peopling of America exhibits: Leaving, Making the Trip, Arrival, Struggle & Survival, and Building a Nation.

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In order to best engage visitors with the personal stories, challenges and opportunities faced by immigrants, ESI Design relied on first-person narrative wherever possible. In the New Eras portion of the exhibit, Gish notes, “Watching the video interviews with people talking about their experiences, you really get a sense of how they were affected by their journey. You hear it from the immigrants themselves, speaking directly to you, and it allows for an identification. These are people who are going through this, this is not an abstract thing that happened.”

She concludes by observing that many of the stories are “very, very moving,” and her colleague from the technology and media department at ESI Design, senior designer Michael Schneider, definitely agrees: “I’ve had to listen to this stories hundreds of times, making sure the video is playing right and the audio levels are good,” he says. “I still tear up every time. They really are amazing stories.”

The emotionally compelling personal experience of watching the first-hand accounts is all about the format and installation, he says. A lot of the video is depicted in “headshot or bust size, almost real scale. They’re on these kiosks that hold the portrait monitor up at head height. It feels like it’s you and your friend, listening to this story. The delivery creates a really personal feeling, because it’s not a 16:9 landscape shot, it’s really a portrait that is talking, telling their story.”

This feeling of intimacy, Gish explains, was the goal. “We wanted more than anything for visitors to really identify on a personal level with the stories that they’re hearing. Whether it’s a historical record or a story from the day before yesterday, it’s still stories about people. It’s the emotional resonance that matters.”

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The major difference between the pre and post-Ellis Island galleries is the way the story is told. The former is mostly audio, with atmospheric sounds of a creaking ship and busy immigration halls wrapped around “windows” where visitors can lean in and hear an immigrant’s story through an actor’s narration of their letters or journal entries.

For the most recent chapters of immigration, Gish explains, “The pace of immigration is faster, so the new phase of exhibits is also faster. The tempo in the new eras galleries feels much quicker. The story is told with more videos, and the ambient music in the room, all of it feels more up-tempo.”

To produce the videos, Gish created a gigantic matrix of stories, themes and graphics that ESI wanted to depict in the New Eras exhibits. Then the History Channel “went out and found real people who represented those things,” visiting immigration aid societies and attorneys across the country, and one referral led to another from there. “I learned later from the producer at the History Channel that in her office they were calling my big matrix ‘the bible.’ They were intently working through it and checking the themes and stories off.”

The detailed matrix was an earnest representation of ESI’s intention, which Gish says was to create “an immersive environment that emotionally engages visitors in not only the epic history of American immigration but also the personal stories, challenges and opportunities faced by immigrants.” These notions are evident from the moment visitors enter the lobby and encounter a spherical rear-projection acrylic globe spanning five feet in diameter that uses video to tell the story of 200,000 years of human migration in nine minutes. The exhibit fixture, called “Global Migration,” uses video only to tell the story, as audio would not be suitable in the entry space, which sometimes holds 800 people at a time as the Ellis Island ferries drop off loads of visitors.

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Three LCD screens are synced to the globe, providing contextual details about the video migration rolling across it, and for the visually impaired, ESI provided a beautiful metallic plaque that has four relief maps on it, illustrating four roots of migration in different time periods, with an enhanced audio description so they can get the impression of the piece.

The Global Migration projection piece also sets the tone for another aspect of the museum consistent throughout. “Right away we’re using technology and video to portray that this story is global, and it’s always part of human existence,” Schneider explains. “It’s really an amazing magnet, people are really drawn to it. The technology is very novel, bringing the object to life and showing people the larger patterns and establishing through its form that this is a museum about a global movement.”

Video sets the ambient context throughout the New Eras exhibits, displaying content such as flight information displays from airports and real footage, much of it taken from news archives, highlighting the immigrants’ journey. “We have video of people from around the world packing, going to airports, sometimes actually running away,” Schneider describes. “It’s really emotional, set to music created by Moby specifically for each of these areas, setting a rhythm both visually and musically.”

In the Building of a Nation gallery, another video piece called “Towns Across America” features communities and neighborhoods where immigrants have settled in America. “We do that through more standard 16:9 landscape video displays, providing windows into five different cities in the U.S. where there are large immigrant communities. We wanted to highlight the remarkable aspects that are part of everyday life. We don’t always know that the guy working at the deli had this incredible, challenging journey getting here. It’s pretty incredible when you start hearing all of these stories.”

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Actually being able to hear the stories was also critical to the exhibits, he adds. “The other thing that we worked a lot on was audio delivery, because it’s all out in the open and the museum is a very active and loud environment. We did multiple passes and tests of how to EQ and compress the audio so that you’re not straining to hear or understand what the person is saying.” After the exhibits were installed, an engineer from Electrosonic spent two days onsite EQing the system to make it just right.

The other factor is time, Schneider says, pointing out that video segments had to be limited to two minutes, tops. “When people are moving through the museum, and there are 40 or 50 different potential stories to listen to, as soon as it starts dragging longer than two minutes, people wander off, there’s so much other stimulus there.”

But high level of stimulus is exactly what is needed in museum spaces today, especially since the intention of museums has always been to stimulate thought and discussion amongst visitors, Schneider concludes. “All of the work that we’ve always done has employed technology at some level. But more and more we’re seeing that technology is where people go to be social, and where they’re comfortable interacting with others. So for those of us at ESI, it’s exciting that we can engage people in this social conversation, in this collaborative building of an idea or exploration of a topic, and technology really helps to support those types of conversations.”