Monday, June 08, 2009

Epiphanies of New York

2: Ellis Island Museum

New York is packed with museums and galleries but none that I've visited has anything like the resonance of the Ellis Island Museum, a place that opens a window into the soul of America.

Ellis Island, hard by the Statue of Liberty, was the processing centre for US immigrants between 1892 and 1954, and has been restored to something like it would have been during its turn of the century heyday. The visitor gets something of the sense of what it must have been like for the millions of immigrants as they got off the boat and went through the battery of tests to determine whether they would be allowed to stay in the US.

The museum is intelligently and imaginatively structured; it works on several different levels. The visceral feel of standing in the very halls where immigrants queued is supplmented by a more cerebral series of statistical displays about the history of US immigration (much more interesting than it sounds). There were also the personal effects of many of the immigrants and all kinds of marginalia from history, like the passenger manifests from some of the ships. The displays were informatively signposted but the artifacts themselves were sometimes more eloquent. There was a passenger manifest from 1892, full of Irish passengers. On adjacent lines were Rose Lenihan, 20, servant, and Kate Lenihan, 18, servant. There were no other Lenihans, so no doubt they were sisters, travelling together to America to make a new life. But Kate died on the voyage. What must it have been like for Rose, just out of her teens, alone in a new country and mourning her sister? Millions of such stories created America.

The thing that really strikes the visitor--the European one, at any rate--is just how young "America" is. (That is not to ignore the people who lived there before the era of mass immigration). All countries have their creation myths, but "Britain", as we understand it today, was arguably born in 1066. In America, that creation myth is only just beyond living memory, and perhaps most Americans will remember talking to an elderly relative who was born overseas, and remembers growing up in Lithuania or Poland, Jamaica or Croatia.

For anyone who has an interest in the past--or indeed in understanding the present--few experiences will be more absorbing and enlightening than the Ellis Island museum.
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Alis said...

Clearly, I need to go to New York...

Tim Stretton said...

Maggie Dana has the opposite view of New York, and hates it as much as I love it. Opinions will always differ!