The Ellis Island Museum Is Revitalizing the Story of American Immigration

A $100 million renovation will help preserve the history of the millions of immigrants who passed through the island in the late 19th and early 20th centuries

Entrance to Ellis Island
The Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration has been open since 1990. Paul Seibert

Between 1892 and 1954, more than 12 million immigrants passed through Ellis Island hoping to start a new life in America. Situated between New York and New Jersey, the historic site was often the first piece of dry land weary travelers touched after a long journey across the Atlantic.

Since 1990, the site has been home to the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration. Now, after more than three decades, the museum is getting a makeover.

The $100 million project, which was announced late last month, includes the creation of new public spaces, the expansion of the American Immigrant Wall of Honor and the development of new interactive experiences. When work is complete, the museum will have touchscreens, immersive films, soundscapes and other pieces of media.

The museum will also offer self-guided tours in 12 languages, as well as American Sign Language tours and descriptive audio tours for visitors who are blind or visually impaired.

Rendering of museum room
This rendering shows what the expanded family history center will look like when work is finished in 2025. Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation

The historic structure will feature an expanded family history center, where guests can look up their relatives. Crews will add new exhibition space, a miniature theater and public research stations.

The museum is also expanding its arrival records database by adding nearly 90 million records from other ports of entry nationwide, including New Orleans and San Francisco, reports CNN’s Catherine E. Shoichet. When finished, the database will include 154 million searchable documents.

At its peak, Ellis Island processed around 5,000 immigrants per day. So many people passed through that an estimated 40 percent of individuals living in the United States today are related to someone who arrived via the island, per the National Park Service.

Searching for those ancestors is “kind of the emotional core of a visit to the island,” says Jesse Brackenbury, president and CEO of the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, which runs the museum in partnership with the National Park Service, to CNN.

“You get off the ferry in the exact same place where 12 million people got off the ferry, and you walk into the baggage room, and you follow in their footsteps … in a place where the walls are just vibrating with history,” he adds.

The building will also get some structural upgrades, including renovated restrooms, Wi-Fi networks and HVAC and electrical systems. Crews will install additional seating, better signage and a 120-foot-wide video screen. For guests who don’t have time to explore all of the museum’s 137,000 square feet, a new gallery near the entrance will provide an overview of the museum’s themes.

“Visitors who come are often a little tired by the time they get there,” Brackenbury tells the New York Times’ James Barron. “You’ve waited for the ferry and taken the ferry, and it’s been a long day already.”

Crews will complete the interior work in phases so that the museum can remain open for the duration of the project, which is slated to finish in 2026. The foundation has raised roughly 60 percent of the funding needed for the renovation and is seeking donations to cover the rest of the costs.

Rendering of museum exhibit
New exhibitions will incorporate immersive films, soundscapes and other types of media. Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation

Separately, the National Park Service is launching a $17.7 million project to give the Beaux-Arts building’s exterior a facelift. Crews will replace the windows and re-point the facade to help prevent water infiltration and improve the building’s thermal efficiency.

Ellis Island became the nation’s primary federal immigration station when it opened on January 1, 1892. After World War I, the U.S. imposed strict immigration quotas, which decreased the number of people coming into the county. For immigrants who did make it through, new laws allowed them to visit an American embassy or consulate in their home country before continuing on to the U.S., replacing Ellis Island’s inspection process. At that point, it became a detention facility for “enemy aliens, those immigrants over-staying their leave, any potentially undesirable immigrants and those with questionable cases,” according to the National Park Service.

The island officially closed in 1954, and its buildings and infrastructure gradually began to show their age. In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson made Ellis Island part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument, placing it under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service. 

Nearly two decades later, in the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan asked automaker executive Lee Iacocca to raise private funds to restore Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, which led to the creation of the foundation.

“We are a nation of immigrants, and Ellis Island is the symbol of that history,” says Brackenbury in the foundation’s statement. “Our project will ensure that the National Museum of Immigration will welcome, educate and inspire visitors for decades to come.”

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