The Statue of Liberty–Ellis Island Foundation and the National Park Service opened Phase I of the Peopling of America Center on October 28, 2011. Designed by ESI Design, the exhibit enlarges the story currently told of the Ellis Island Era (1892-1954) to include those who arrived before Ellis Island opened in 1892. Phase Two exhibits, which will open in 2013, will examine the immigration experience after Ellis Island closed in 1954 to the present day.
The 10,000 square foot exhibit experience, utilizes interpretative graphics and poignant audio stories to tell first-hand accounts of immigrants’ journeys—from making the trip and arriving in the United States to their struggle and survival after they arrived and efforts to build communities and ultimately a nation.
Also on view is the American Flag of Faces, a dynamic digital display of visitor-contributed photographs. Visitors can go online at www.FlagofFaces.org and add photographs of their family, ancestors or themselves, creating a permanent memorial online and onsite at Ellis Island. The dynamic tapestry of American faces from people of all ages, races, and backgrounds creates a powerful symbol of unity and diversity.
The Peopling of America Center builds upon ESI’s earlier work with the Foundation, including the design of the American Family Immigration History Center, which opened in 2001, along with the record-breaking website www.ellisisland.org, which allows visitors to search over 25 million passenger records and 3.5 million digitized ship manifests pages for family members who arrived at the Port of New York between 1892 and 1924. I asked Edwin Schlosberg how he and his team conceived and executed the exhibits.
The Peopling of America project involves two phases. Immigrants coming to Ellis Island and those who arrived prior to its opening. How did you go about obtaining the information, and then making it in a form that is accessible to all?
We organized a content advisory team of 12 of the most interesting and talented immigration historians in the US. ESI created a design where we described the large patterns of migration for the pre-Ellis periods and then the big patterns for the post-Ellis periods and then selected six ethnic groups for each period to tell family stories that would ground the experience. The content team edited our design and directed us to specialists and checked our work.
How did Phase 1 work. Did you find an overwhelming interest in investigating the past?
It was very absorbing but we tried to make the experience more evocative and emotional rather than rigorously informational since it can only really be part of the Ellis visit.
This is an incredible design problem. What were your major concerns and how did you solve them?
The concern is always the same. How to create something that provides the context for discovery and the content to answer some of the questions that arise I think this is successful but the evaluation always is determined by the visitors.
Do you see this project as a model for other personal data accumulation and accessa? And if so, what?
I think this is a good model when joined by the American family history center and the amazing context of ellis island. Meaning that is requires. A validating context to establish the frame for the experience.