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Technology and immigrant tales collide at Ellis Island

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The story of humanity's migration across the world, starting with the people who first ventured out of Africa roughly 60,000 years ago, is well-documented. Since then, our lifestyle has evolved tremendously, with technological advancements in key areas such as transportation playing a large role in that. To put things into perspective, a one-way trip from China to San Francisco would have taken 45 days on a ship 150 years ago, now it is a mere 16-hour flight. And that's the story being told at NYC's Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration.

Gallery: Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration | 31 Photos

As part of a major expansion led by ESI Design, three new exhibits will open to the public on May 20th, including The Journey: New Eras of Immigration and the Citizenship Gallery. The former is a walkthrough of the history of immigration post-Ellis Island, from 1945 to present day, while the latter focuses on what the legal process is like for US residents that decide to become citizens. So, instead of only focusing on Ellis Island, once the busiest immigrant-inspection station in the US, the museum's narrative is widening.

Think back to the early days of the 20th century. Then, it could take over a month for correspondence to reach its destination, given that all mail headed overseas traveled by ship. Today, we are spoiled by super-fast messaging applications that allow us to communicate instantly with most people across the world. But how are immigrants coping with the technology currently at their disposal? Does it let them adapt faster to a new place? If they leave family behind in their country of origin, is it easier to not miss them? After all, there's Facebook, FaceTime, Skype, WhatsApp and plenty more services that keep people connected to each other, regardless of where they are in the world.

"They [immigrants] can stay in touch with families; it's allowed them to retain their culture. But it becomes a generational conflict," says Clay Gish, director of writing and research at ESI Design, on how hard it becomes for immigrants to let go of their culture, despite being able to easily keep in touch with family members abroad. Of course, it's now easier than ever for immigrants to be well-prepared for what lies ahead, thanks to the many useful services available on the web. With Craigslist, they can easily find a place to live; Google Maps can guide them through a new city; and social networks make it simpler to meet people. That's only the tip of the iceberg, too.

Tour: Ellis Island Museum of Immigration

Throughout the exhibits, as a way to make you feel closer to the story, the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration designers added visual and audio components that relate to each era. In Journeys: The Peopling of America, for example, you can see letters originally written by immigrants, oftentimes addressed to their loved ones. "We used audio to create an ambiance and an environment; we used technology that people in this era used, like letters and words, and that's why audio is such a huge focus," says Michael Schneider, ESI Design's senior designer of tech and media. "So you hear these letters in their original language and then in their translation."

With Citizenship Gallery, on the other hand, there's a more modern approach. The exhibit is filled with video content, in a nod to the era we live in now, which shows interviews with people who have gone through the immigration process in the US. "This is the era of moving image, so that's why these new areas use this instead of just audio," Schneider says.


Journeys: The Peopling of America covers the immigration landscape from the 1550s to 1890. While this exhibit has been in the program since 2011, way before Hurricane Sandy touched ground in NYC and forced the museum to close temporarily, its expansion is equally as substantial as the new additions. That's because it details one of the most important time periods in the history of this country, before Ellis Island even existed; it discusses Native Americans, as well as people who came here against their will and some of the challenges immigrants had to face upon arrival, such as racism and slavery.

"We used the metaphor of a journey, for this and the post-Ellis era," says Schneider about the exhibit's layout. "It's about a journey, leaving home and adapting to a new country."

One thing is certain: People to this day are still willing to take on anything to find a new home, just like those who came before thousands of years ago. For some, unfortunately, that's the only choice -- perhaps due to political conflicts, or maybe it's just the hope of a better life. But it's this state of mind, the willingness to explore the unexplored, to be prepared for any potential mental or physical challenges on the road ahead, that led our ancestors to discover territories along their lengthy journeys.

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