Celebrating the Immigrant: An Administrative History
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After twenty years of planning, fund-raising, controversies and agreements, both the NPS and the AMI, Inc., wanted to open the museum of immigration with fanfare and gala ceremonies. In June 1972, Jerry Wagers, director of the New York District, wrote to Alfred Horowitz, chairman of the Executive Committee of the AMI, Inc., suggesting that they sit down together to work out details concerning the dedication: speakers, activities, guest lists, press releases.

They would soon have a third partner, however, in the staging of the event. President Richard M. Nixon, who had been vice president when the museum project was first proposed and who had long supported it, agreed to be the guest of honor and the principal speaker. The Republicans undoubtedly saw the political advantage in participating in such an event just weeks before the 1972 election. From Washington came word that the White House wanted to set September 26 as the date for the dedication. This coincided with the first leg of the President's coast-to-coast campaign trip.

Nixon, according to the New York Daily News, had been making "a strong pitch. . . for the ethnic vote which usually goes to the Democrats." With that strategy in mind, the Republicans turned the ceremonies into what the News described as "an ethnic festival." The audience of roughly 3,000 on Liberty Island that day was composed of first- and second-generation Americans, some in the costumes of their former homelands. The Republican National Committee and the New York Committee to Reelect the President issued invitations to thousands of Roman Catholic parochial school and Jewish yeshiva children, their parents, and teachers. When President Nixon and his party (Mrs. Nixon, Secretary of Interior Morton, Governors Nelson Rockefeller of New York and William T. Cahill of New Jersey, and Pierre S. du Pont, 3rd) alighted from their helicopter in mid-afternoon, four little girls, dressed in the costumes of Italy, Germany, Poland, and the Ukraine, presented the First Lady with a bouquet. [1]

Pres. Nixon
President Richard M. Nixon arrived on Liberty Island September 26, 1972, to dedicate the American Museum of Immigration. He was joined by Mrs. Nixon and New York children invited to the opening ceremonies, in costumes showing their families' ethnic origins.
(Source: Photograph Collection of the American Museum of Immigration, Liberty Island, U.S. Department of the Interior, NPS)

Nixon and his companions took a brief tour of the exhibits and then the speeches began. First came du Pont, who used the opportunity to extol the unique relationship between private citizens (led by the AMI, Inc.) and the government, which had made the museum possible. He paid tribute to three AMI trustees who had not lived to see this culmination of their dream: Ulysses S. Grant, III, Hamilton, and Spyros Skouras. Mindful of the heated criticisms of Vecoli and company, du Pont said the museum was "not completed." Changing exhibits and special events would be planned to pay tribute to every ethnic group. Next, Secretary Morton spoke briefly and introduced the President.

As Nixon began to speak, the only discordant note in the proceedings was struck. A dozen anti-Vietnam War demonstrators attempted to interrupt him with shouts of "Stop the bombing" as they waved signs reading "Stop the War." Administration supporters in the crowd chanted back "Four More Years." Nixon, who frequently accused the media of paying more attention to the dissident minority than the "silent majority," called toward the camera crews, "Thank you ladies and gentlemen. I would only suggest that on your television screen tonight in addition to showing the six there [pointing to the protestors], let's show the thousands that are over here."

After the NPS police hustled away the demonstrators, the President continued in a vein he must have sensed would please his audience. The immigrants celebrated in the museum, he declared, "believed in hard work. They didn't come here for a handout. They came here for an opportunity and they built America. I have found," he added, that "when it comes to patriotism, those who came to America from other lands are in the forefront." [2]

When dedication day and its politics were over, the press and the public finally got their turn to visit the new museum and evaluate what they saw and heard there. The reviews in the newspapers were, for the most part, favorable. A columnist in the Baltimore Sun wrote that the American Museum of Immigration offered a fascinating treatment of the subject and was "a marvel of ethnic balance. . . .The Models of the slave ships with cutaways of the holds. . .is a lurid exhibit that will bring shivers to free men." From the New York Daily News came the comment, "The United States' newest museum in the base of the Statue of Liberty is simply wow! I was fascinated by a blown-up facsimile of an indenture paper which had to be like the one signed by. . .my great-great-great-great-great grandfather." A Long Island Newsday reporter singled out the life-sized figures of immigrants dressed in their native clothing "as vivid and colorful," while a New York Times journalist found "most dramatic of all are spectacular photographs of old newspaper pictures blown up so they stretch from the floor to the ceiling. The most arresting one is of Mulberry Street on the Lower East Side."

There were, on the other hand, some bitingly critical commentaries. Rose De Wolf, in the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, asked, "What was the big rush to open this travesty? The overall impression you get there is that there are two ways to prove yourself as an American--one is to become rich and famous and the other--not as good--is to die in a war. Women and children, needless to say, are rarely in view. Poor Miss Liberty. What a dirty trick to hide this under her skirt." [3]

And what about the more than one million persons who visited Liberty Island each year? How did they react? During the first twelve months after the new facility opened, approximately 650,000 or a little less than half of those visitors found their way into the museum. The figures did not change much for the remainder of the decade, ranging between approximately 600,000 and 700,000 viewers per year, about 50 percent of those arriving on Liberty Island. As one staff member put it, climbing to the statue's crown was still the tourist's chief goal. "The museum will probably always be a secondary attraction. . . . "

In April and May 1973, a student intern conducted an informal survey of visitor use to learn more about the response of those who did make their way into the museum. The survey indicated that the average time the viewer took to go through the exhibits was 17.9 minutes and estimated that a comprehensive look at the museum (reading all captions, listening to the audios, seeing the films) would take sixty to ninety minutes. (However, few visitors to any museum read all the captions.) Most of the comments overheard were favorable, with people seemingly most impressed by the professional design and color. Viewers seemed generally to show the greatest interest in the exhibits pertaining to their own ethnic group. At least some persons appeared to be emotionally touched. One wrote in a letter to the Daily News, "A visit to the new American Museum of Immigration. . .rekindled memories of the happiest moments of my life. . .when I arrived from Russia on September 20, 1920." [4]

Even if most liked what they saw, the NPS could not forget that a group of scholars in the field of immigration and some ethnic leaders had been extremely critical. To satisfy their objections to the exhibit plan, Jerry Wagers, Russ Hendrickson, Chester Brooks, and others, had drawn up a list of revisions back in May 1972 that would be made before the dedication, and others that would be attended to after the opening. The NPS now returned to that commitment. The first step was to seek further advice from museum specialists. Dr. Ernest A. Connally, associate director, Professional Services, NPS, invited Dr. Paul N. Perrot of the Smithsonian; George Bowditch, curator of the Margaret Woodbury Strong Museum; David Scott, consultant, National Gallery of Art; Dr. Walter J. Heacock, Hagley Museum director; and Charles Guggenheim, Guggenheim Productions, Inc., to visit the AMI and make recommendations concerning the content and presentation of the exhibits.

That group toured the museum on December 14, 1972, in the company of Wagers, AMI Curator Kallop, and STLI NM Superintendent Batman, and during the next six weeks its members forwarded extensive reports to the NPS. At the end of January 1973, the New York District office compiled a summary of the observations contained in those reviews. The team members felt that the design overwhelmed the theme of the museum. The taped messages accompanying some of the exhibits were too long. They called for better transitions from one display to the next to help the viewer follow the story. All of the reports complained about the "Reluctant Immigrant" exhibit on Afro-Americans, but expressed different reasons for their dissatisfaction. Three team members believed that the religious treatment in the Jewish Exhibit was out of keeping with the remainder of the museum, and all were disappointed in the summation room. The NPS could improve comfort in the museum by lowering the general level of lighting and adding some seats for visitors. The lighting was subsequently improved and this change probably constituted the most direct response to the report's criticisms. [5]

In April 1973 specialists from Harpers Ferry and STLI NM staff composed a list of specific revisions to be made in the museum, based on the study team evaluation and the earlier promises to the ethnic leaders and the group of scholars headed by Dr. Vecoli. They grouped these changes, additions and/or corrections into first, second, and third priorities, noting beside each the estimated cost of planning and of actual production. In the first priority list they placed some of the following: include exhibits on immigrant religions and the immigration experience in the Heartlands Festival area; expand the coverage of Balkan, Baltic, Central and Eastern European immigrants; incorporate an exhibit on Near Eastern immigration; and totally replan and redesign the exhibit room around the theme of "And Still They Come." This last project they estimated would require $10,000 for the planning and $80,000 for the production. In the second and third priority categories went revisions, along the lines suggested by the scholars and museum specialists, for the Chinese, Japanese, Jewish, and black exhibits, among others.

This 1973 document, in addition, listed museum-related projects which would enhance the AMI's worth as an educational institution. These proposals, too, were divided into first, second, and third priorities. In the first category the planners mentioned operating a special exhibit program on an estimated annual budget of $3,000 for planning, $15,000 for production, and starting a publications effort with $5,000 for planning and $5,000 for production. The price tag attached to the total package of exhibit revisions and related projects came to more than $350,000.

On April 27, Jerry Wagers wrote to Al Horowitz of the AMI, Inc., enclosing a copy of these proposals. Wagers pointed out that there was only $5,600 left in the AMI's donation account for the museum, and the NPS' 1974 fiscal year budget contained no appropriations for revisions or other related projects. If the AMI, Inc., would contribute more monies for the desired work or any part of it, the NPS could proceed almost immediately. [6]

The problems were not to be solved that easily. The AMI, Inc., apparently had next to no funds on hand, nor did it have any effective schemes for raising new income. Museum Curator Kallop wrote repeatedly in 1973 and 1974 informing Horowitz and the trustees of the AMI, Inc., that he did not have sufficient money to carry on properly with special programs, let alone undertake revision of exhibits. Furthermore, funding for museum rehabilitation/revision came from an overextended Harpers Ferry fund and not out of the STLI NM's annual operating budget. As a result, Kallop and the curators who succeeded him, Paul Weinbaum and Paul Kinney, fought an often losing battle simply to keep on top of needed repairs and maintenance as exhibits aged and the museum suffered the wear and tear of 600,000 or more people going through it per year. There were also complaints voiced by both NPS staff and AMI, Inc., executives concerning the poor communications between the two groups. For example, in a November 30, 1973, letter to Viola Scott Thomas of AMI, Inc., Curator Kallop wrote, "What I feel is lacking perhaps comes down to the overworked word communication." Alfred Horowitz, chairman of the AMI, Inc., Executive Committee in the 1970s, on the other hand, claimed that in its dealings with his organization the "NPS has been often uncooperative." [7]

Despite the fact that it did not contribute money, the AMI, Inc., periodically nudged the NPS to get on with the proposed revisions and to initiate new programs. In October 1974, Senator Howard M. Metzenbaum (Democrat-Ohio), now a trustee of the AMI, Inc., wrote to NYC Group Superintendent William H. Hendrickson, inquiring about progress made on these items and reminding him that the 1972 commitment had to be honored. Acting Superintendent Wilbur Ford replied that many minor changes in the exhibits had been made and several of the projects were underway. The major revisions, particularly redesign of the final room, could not be managed without private financial assistance. The stalemate continued through 1975, with the AMI, Inc., prodding the NPS to more activity and the NYC Group officials requesting at least $4,000 to initiate planning of the redesign of the "And Still They Come" exhibit. [8]

Frustrated with the lack of action, du Pont, Horowitz, and George Hartzog (a former director of the NPS and now a trustee of the AMI, Inc.) met in April 1976 with William C. Everhart, assistant director of the Service. The AMI, Inc., officers complained that the museum was simply not living up to its potential as a major educational and cultural institution in the New York area. New, expanded outreach programs must be started and the long-delayed revisions of the exhibits had to be undertaken. The AMI, Inc., wanted to offer more financial assistance for these endeavors, but it did not possess the resources.

Everhart, perhaps realizing that the NPS was unlikely ever to receive substantial, regular donations from the AMI, Inc., promised to make all efforts to obtain funds in the 1978 fiscal year budget for the planning and production work on the summation room. His requests in a period of tight federal budgets, however, proved fruitless and nothing was done.

As late as the fall of 1980, Harpers Ferry Interpretive Planner Mike Paskowsky and Exhibit Designer David McLean visited Liberty Island and wrote a report reiterating that priority must be given to redesigning the "And Still They Come" exhibit. They recommended a $250,000 package to cover the cost of the exhibit; the redesign and restoration of the Statue of Liberty Story Room, which had suffered bomb damage; and a limited amount of rehabilitation and revision in the remainder of the museum. Through 1982, however, the money had not materialized, and by then suggestions that the museum might be moved to Ellis Island made the NPS reluctant to expend funds on displays that might subsequently be dismantled and relocated. [9]

In addition to lack of funds, other problems also prevented the immigration museum from becoming a major educational and cultural institution in the New York area. The 1970s saw a strong movement toward the professionalization of museum staffs in the United States: development of formal procedures of administration and acquisition, expansion of on- and off-site educational programs, hiring of adequate, professionally trained staff, and accreditation of institutions. Paul Weinbaum, as curator of the AMI, belonged to the local New York City museum organization, the Museum Council, a loosely organized group of about 50 museum curators. As a member of the organization, Weinbaum discussed with the others and was fully aware of these new standards. He found, however, that his museum peers had one standard of professional expectations, while the NPS and AMI, Inc., had another.

The emerging museum ethic envisioned the museum as a place where new and special exhibits and activities could be presented, building upon an expanding core collection at the site. The dominant philosophy at NPS was oriented toward visitor use, not acquisition and development of collections. This rather static NPS philosophy did not allow for the additional staff and expenditures necessary under a more dynamic approach. Thus, after the immigration museum opened, its curators battled constantly with higher-up NPS staff for funds to enlarge the collection, support visiting shows and special exhibits, and acquire a more adequate library. The funds made available for these purposes never came in the desired amount, and Curator Weinbaum felt the museum's possibilities substantially diminished as a result. In Weinbaum's view, the executive board of the AMI, Inc., was no better on these matters. He thought they had little concept of what constituted a professional museum staff and seemed wedded to attitudes about museums inherited from the 1950s and 60s.

Even in the matter of the primary responsibilities of the curator of the AMI there were conflicting expectations. The AMI, Inc., saw the curator as the person concerned first and foremost with running the museum, and, as a member of the Museums Council, the curator also played that role. The NPS, however, regarded the curator as a member of the interpretive staff for the entire Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island site and expected him to spend much of his time on visitor and other services not confined to the museum. [10]

The severe financial constraints, differences in museum philosophy, and conflicting administrative expectations hampered revision of exhibits, expansion of collections, and the hiring of needed museum specialists and professionals in the field. Nevertheless, the American Museum of Immigration did manage to mount a number of special exhibits, primarily in the museum lobby, and carry on several educational and cultural programs. Although these temporary shows were not usually professionally designed and were often mounted on shoestring budgets, they were reasonably well-done. Moreover, they often dealt with topics neglected, wholly or in part, by the permanent exhibits.

The cultural life of the immigrants, slighted in the museum proper, became the subject of the 1974 "Read All About It: The Immigrant Press--An American Tradition." Children, who, one critic remarked, barely existed in the permanent displays, received the spotlight in "And They Call Us a Problem? The Immigrant Child 1890--1930." This was designed as a traveling exhibit, which opened at the museum and was then shipped to other educational and cultural institutions. In 1982 visitors as far away as Colorado could see that show at the Fort Collins Museum. [11]

Another traveling exhibit was entitled "Yearning to Breathe Free: Immigrants in Search of the American Dream." It consisted of 23 mounted photographs depicting the experiences of immigrants being processed through Ellis Island early in the 20th century. [12] Augustus F. Sherman, the Immigration Service's official photographer until his death in 1925, had taken the pictures. All but forgotten, Sherman's work was rediscovered when the photographer's heirs donated a collection of 125 original prints to the museum. [13]

The museum, in cooperation with outside ethnic and scholarly organizations, mounted two temporary shows that focused on the family, cultural, and community life of two immigrant groups that had not received extensive coverage in the permanent displays. In 1976 the "Chinese in America: Images of a Neglected Past" opened on Liberty Island. Developed by the AMI and the Basement Workshop (later named the Asian-American Research Institute), and funded in part by Museums Collaborative, a New York City organization, the exhibit dealt with the actual life of Chinese-Americans and the stereotypes about them held by their white countrymen.

"We Italian-Americans: A Pictorial Essay, 1875-1977" followed in the fall of 1977. The show, financed in part by a grant from the New York Council for the Humanities, was a joint undertaking of the museum and the Center for Migration Studies, a non-profit research institute. This small exhibit illustrated important aspects of Italian-American life with photographs of neighborhood, family, famous Italian-Americans, and demonstrations of prejudice against the group. [14]

The museum further attempted to enlarge its audience and reach out to the public by organizing special events. In September and October 1973 the staff arranged an Ethnic American Music Festival. The concerts, given out-of-doors on Liberty Island on three successive Sundays, attracted audiences of 200 to 400, most of them ordinary tourists. Between September and December 1975 the museum ran a festival of documentary and fictional films depicting the immigrant experience. The movies, shown on Friday and Sunday afternoons in the statue's base, ranged from the earliest documentaries made at the start of the century to recent Hollywood and television dramatic productions. Despite careful planning and publicity in the New York Times and elsewhere, the showings drew minimal attendance.

Within a year after the museum opened, it began one of its most ambitious projects, "Immigrants on Tape." In July 1973 a small article in the New York Times announced that the institution wanted to interview persons who had entered the United States through Ellis Island about their immigration experience and subsequent life in America. So many people contacted Liberty Island that the NPS hired Margo Nash, a sociologist experienced in interviewing techniques, to coordinate the project. With the aid of other staff members Nash took oral histories not only of immigrants who had passed through Ellis Island, but also of persons who had worked there during its heyday as the main processing depot.

During 1974 the project received considerable publicity when Nash collaborated with Daily News reporter Eleanor Swertlow on a series of twelve articles that appeared in the Sunday editions. After Nash conducted the original interview, Swertlow visited the home of the participant, gathering additional data, taking a photograph, and writing a profile. A radio broadcast on station WNYC, in June 1974, featured Margo Nash and three of the interviewees discussing the oral history endeavor.

Though Nash did not remain with the museum permanently, the work continued and by 1982 more than 150 tapes had been recorded. The scope of the project also broadened to include oral histories of immigrants who had entered the United States at places other than Ellis Island. The NPS eventually found the money to pay for transcribing the tape recordings. The AMI library made both the tapes and the written transcriptions available to anyone in the field of immigration studies who paid a nominal fee. [15]

These special programs, temporary exhibits, and minor changes in the permanent displays and labels apparently corrected some of the flaws that had bothered historians. Professor Victor Greene of the University of Wisconsin, who had served in 1972 on the committee of scholars headed by Vecoli, in July 1979 again evaluated the museum and wrote a consulting historian's report on the updated institution. In it he recalled that the exhibits in 1972 had tended to emphasize upward social mobility, the successful immigrant and the military sacrifices and other contributions that the immigrants made to their adopted country. The report commended the museum for moving away from these themes and paying more attention to sources of migrants, the work and social life of the immigrants, and the rise of ethnic communities. Greene concluded that in the future the institution should push further ahead with these shifts. [16]

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Last Updated: 24-Sep-2001