PRINT December 1990


Producing Ellis Island

HOW DOES a federal office become a shrine? From 1892 until 1924, millions of steerage passengers passed through Ellis Island as quickly as possible without looking back. Today even more recreational immigrants will board Miss Freedom and other official Ellis Island boats provided by “America’s Favorite Boatride,” the Circle Line. They will participate in the founding myth of our time, “America’s great immigrant heritage,” through the trope of retracing the steps of those who came to the “promised land” before them.

Never an icon like the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island was an aperture, not a place; it was a gauntlet controlled by the Bureau of Immigration. Since 1965, the onset of a new period of mass immigration, it has been under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service. Ellis Island, now a repository of patriotic sentiment, has been incorporated into a recreational geography of national parks and monuments, alongside Colonial Williamsburg, Plymouth Rock, and the Grand Canyon. Tourists entering the newly restored main building are informed that “rangers will welcome visitors at an orientation desk in the Baggage Room.” This is not the reception immigrants got.

Quietly slipping into the landfill on which they were built, the abandoned buildings on Ellis Island are a tangible reminder of restrictive legislation in 1921 and 1924 (and during the 1950s Cold War) that reduced the torrent of immigration to a trickle for four decades and changed Ellis Island from a major immigration center to a small detention and deportation facility. According to Stephen Briganti, president of the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, Ellis Island was abandoned in 1954 not because of any “lack of pride in its heritage,” but because the site had outlived its usefulness. Such formulations obscure the fact that the death of the site resulted from the stranglehold of restrictive immigration policy.

Restored, Ellis Island rises like a phoenix from the ashes of American immigration history. In the wake of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, the specter of the AIDS testing of gays trying to enter the country, the movement to make English our official language and the square dance our national dance, the restoration of Ellis Island has attracted some $156 million from the private sector for what is billed as the largest restoration project in American history. A golden handshake between Ronald Reagan and Lee Iacocca in 1982 brought forth from the pockets of corporate sponsors and underwriters representing the alcohol, tobacco, soft drink, and infant-formula interests—as well as from some 200,000 private citizens—enough dollars to enshrine a government office. Meanwhile millions of would-be immigrants, many of them casualties of American foreign policy, languish in refugee camps in Thailand, wait for visas in EI Salvador and Haiti, are rounded up along the Mexican border, pay exorbitant sums to lawyers to help them get green cards, or live as illegal aliens, uncounted by the census and unprotected in the workplace.

In 1900, ten years after the first immigration station was established on Ellis Island, the main building that is the centerpiece of the restoration was completed. Designed by the architects Boring & Tilton in Beaux-Arts style, this building was refurbished after World War I when the intimidating Registry Room acquired its vaulted ceiling of Guastavino tile. The restoration of the building was thus determined by the dictates of architectural, not immigrant, history. The Registry Room has been left practically empty so that visitors may fill it with their own images and feelings. Given past and present discourse around the site, we might well ask whose images and feelings they really are. Iacocca experienced “ghosts of the immigrants who once huddled under the arching dome of the Great Hall, clutching their few worldly possessions. . . . I could almost sense the steamships, the crowds, the mixture of hope and fear on their faces. My own mother and father, I thought, must have stood right where I was standing”—a Hollywood film epic in the making.

The building is frozen in a narrow band of time, while the two decades of mass immigration, during which Ellis Island processed more than half those entering the United States, expand to encompass four centuries of American history. The Ellis Island Restoration thus subsumes prior and subsequent historical moments—from the Mayflower to Fort Chafee to the Los Angeles International Airport—while the immigrants who passed through this facility become prototypes for all who came to America no matter what their point of origin, port of entry, time of arrival, or circumstances. When Vice-President Quayle declared, “What we celebrate in Ellis Island is nothing less than the triumph of the American spirit,” and American Express proclaimed, “Ellis Island speaks for everyone who’s shared in the American dream,” they drew a circle around all Americans present, past, and future and incorporated them into the master narrative of immigration. All of them become “pilgrims of freedom,” a designation that obscures political expediency as a determinant of refugee status: those fleeing Communist (or ex-Communist) regimes can enter the United States more easily than those escaping right-wing dictatorships supported by the American government.

Using the principle of synecdoche, the restoration makes Ellis Island the master paradigm for all ports of immigrant entry in all historical periods. This approach to classifying immigrants would be unthinkable in the halls of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), because it offers little basis for excluding anyone. So powerful is this master category that it includes not only the living American descendants of immigrants processed at Ellis Island, estimated at about 100 million people, but also Mickey Mouse, who appears with cap and bag in front of Ellis Island on a T-shirt in the gift shop. Like Mickey, tourists may also become honorary Ellis Islanders, their visits authenticated by “The Official Ellis Island Visitor’s Medal” or the certificate that serves as an “official document that will take its place alongside your family’s most precious heirlooms,” just like the visa, the green card, and the passport. At the Ellis Island Restoration, even memories are produced and authenticated.

For although the Ellis Island Restoration attempts to correct the exclusions of the past by finding a place for those who were not allowed to pass through its doors, the fact is that the stories of most who came (or tried to come) to these shores still bypass Ellis Island. Some arrived under duress—the slave trade—or found themselves in the United States because the territories in which they lived were annexed. Others had the money to avoid steerage class and, therefore, Ellis Island. Still others have been deported for any one of dozens of reasons that fly in the face of professed ideals of liberty. Many from Asia, Africa, and Latin America have only been allowed to enter in substantial numbers since 1965, when American immigration legislation was significantly liberalized. What does it mean, then, to absorb their stories into the master narrative of Ellis Island as the golden gateway to America? Can the perfection of the restoration mitigate the imperfections of history?

In an extraordinary example of credit-card history, American Express invites its cardholders to honor any ancestors who came to the U.S. at any time and through any port by inscribing a family’s or an individual’s name on the American Immigrant Wall of Honor, a copper ribbon covering the upper surface of the seawall ringing the island. Not death on the battlefield of war, but a minimum of $100 charged to AmEx is all that is required. Those inscribed on the wall are the Ellis Islanders, proxies for those who paid to honor them, a point not lost on the casual visitor. Overheard: “These are the names of the people who spent a hundred dollars.” The younger generation may be cynical about the AmEx invitation, but their older relatives may expect, and even pressure, them to honor the family in this way. Almost 200,000 names have been inscribed, raising more than $20 million for what is billed as the longest wall of names in the world, and extensions to the wall are underway. The ease with which one can sign on to the American Immigrant Wall of Honor, however, obscures the very real obstacles to obtaining a visa or a green card.

Visitors are also encouraged to trace their family genealogies with the assistance of computers (only those whose names appear on the wall are included in the computer registry) and videodiscs. The elite project of genealogy is thus enlisted to elevate immigrant history, which depends for its prestige on an ancestor who passed through the federal bureaucracy of Ellis Island. As heritage is reduced to genealogy and port of entry, records that controlled America’s borders are subjected to adaptive reuse and a federal office becomes the custodian of family history. A federal procedure becomes the “symbol of this nation’s immigrant heritage.”

Who authorizes Ellis Island to speak for all Americans? Lee Iacocca? Corporate sponsors and underwriters? The National Park Service? Professional historians? The National Society Daughters of the American Revolution? ARA Leisure Services? How does Ellis Island speak and what does the restoration say? Consider for a moment the role of the list and the grid. Each name has its own line on the American Immigrant Wall of Honor, arranged in the arbitrary order of the alphabet, just like ship manifests and naturalization records. Each immigrant’s face has its own quadrant on a relief chevron surface so arranged that the faces we see from one viewing position dissolve into the American flag when viewed from another position. Unhuddled, each name and face distinct, the tired and the poor of “The New Colossus” are here disciplined by the orderly list and grid, instruments of perceptual control that appear to treat all citizens equally: “We want to have visitors leave with the feeling that they know the people who came to this country and the emotions felt at Ellis Island,” says Briganti. But the list and the grid also neutralize significant differences by virtue of their arbitrary and repetitive structures, an effect that has its analogues in the gift shop and restaurant.

Unrestrained by the discipline of professional historians or the dictates of tastefulness that tempered the “selling” of Ellis Island to corporate philanthropy, the gift shop and cafeteria offer popular conceptions of the restoration in some of its most inventive forms. Consistent with the hushed and elevated tone that suffuses the site more generally, the gift shop features “products that reflect the heritage of the people from all over the world who passed through Ellis Island, the Gateway to America. Enjoy them with pride and remember those who came this way.” What exactly is the heritage that this “exclusive Ellis Island Gift Collection” reflects? Using a gallery-of-nations approach, the gift shop features the national colors, flags, costumes, and other attributes of passport identity associated with the imagined communities of nation states and the traditions they have invented—limited-edition porcelain eagles from the American Signature Collection, a Connemara green marble worry stone from Ireland, German steins, Russian nested dolls, Bentley’s of London Old Master’s Collection of Fruit Bonbons, and “adopt a Norfin troll” from Denmark. Thanks to a shelving error, the Dala horse key ring from Sweden becomes a Dutch souvenir, a suggestive metaphor for the arbitrariness of immigration classifications. Indeed, the plethora of mementos from Holland says more about who makes good souvenirs than which country sent the most immigrants to America.

The limits of the historical categories of immigration classification—“racial ancestry” and passport identities—as a repository for “heritage” are specially clear in the gap between how immigrants were differentiated during the heyday of Ellis Island and the categories relevant to today’s tourists. Is a visitor whose Jewish grandmother came from Vilna in 1920—immigration officials would have classified her as “Hebrew race”—expected to purchase a souvenir mug bearing the image of a Polish man or a plaque emblazoned with the Israeli flag? Which souvenirs are appropriate for Palestinians, Ukrainians, Armenians, Basques, Gypsies, Quebecois, and African-Americans?

What we have here is “logo”-centrism run amok. For these plaques, medals, plates, mugs, steins, desk pen sets, clocks, money clips, key chains, refrigerator magnets, ashtrays, trivets, thimbles, china bells, trays, paperweights, shot glasses, rings, spoons, bags, letter openers, pennants, ranger badges, toy jewelry, and the T-shirt in a cup bear the historical equivalent of a designer label. They are a ubiquitous repertoire of neutral shapes whose sole purpose is to codify memories, even when they are imaginary.

Following the logic of corporate capitalism, the gift shop, like the corporate sponsors, convert historical subjects into markets. AT&T, which underwrote the “Treasures from Home” exhibition, celebrated the opening of Ellis Island by offering discounts on long-distance phone calls (“Let us help you go home”). NYNEX, which sponsored the interactive Videowall (16 screens and a cast of millions), invites visitors to “experience the spirit of our ancestors through the technology of today.”

But perhaps the most labile expressions of the Ellis Island story are to be found in the “All America Worlds Fare” offered in the cafeteria. Past a photomural of immigrants at long tables with their bowls of stew and crusts of bread are the lines of tourists ordering from a fast-food menu that is a gastric metaphor for the amalgamation of those who passed through Ellis Island, as if to say, “Would that the absorption of immigrants were as easy as eating a Greek salad.” The French breakfast (egg, ham, and cheese on a croissant) and the English breakfast (ham, egg, and cheese on English muffin) are the culinary corollaries of the national dolls, with their identical mass-produced plastic bodies in “ethnic” dress, for sale in the gift shop. Pizza, hamburgers, hot dogs, chili dogs, and “French” fries, those mainstays of American junk food, have had their “national” origins restored—in this context they become ethnic foods. The menu specifies an “Italian” meatball submarine, corned beef on “Jewish” rye, and the mysterious Parisienne Tuna Salad. When I inquired what was Parisienne about two scoops of tuna salad, lettuce, tomato, and a hard-boiled egg, the cashier replied, “It must have been made in Parisia.” Ethnic blurs abound. Overheard: “Where’s the pierogi sandwich?”

However exquisite the Ellis Island restoration and however seductive the rhetoric that surrounds it, memory is not reclaimed here. It is produced. The attribution of authorship to those who subscribe to the American Immigrant Wall of Honor obscures the hands that really control what will be remembered and how, for ultimately the intermittently visible producers of the restoration are the authors of institutionalized memory.

Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett chairs the Department of Performance Studies at the Tisch School of the Arts, New York University. Her next book, Performing Culture, is about the exhibition of people and culture.