This American landmark is getting a $100 million makeover

Ellis Island’s museum is getting a 21st-century makeover, more than 100 years after millions of immigrants took their first steps in America there.

A new $100-million project aims to revitalize the 125-year-old landmark with immersive and modern exhibits. Recently announced renovations and upgrades at the historic site also include plans to more than double the number of records available to visitors who hope to trace their families’ stories there.

“This is a historic effort in a really important place to assure that it remains vital and relevant,” says Jesse Brackenbury, president and CEO of the Statue of Liberty – Ellis Island Foundation.

And giving more visitors a chance to personally connect with the island’s history is a key part of that, he says.

The famed island, located in New York Harbor, first became a processing center for immigrants in 1892. Today about 40% of the US population can trace their ancestry through Ellis Island, according to the National Park Service.

And many visitors to the museum try to do just that.

“This is kind of the emotional core of a visit to the island. 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,” Brackenbury told CNN Thursday.

A group of recently arrived immigrants carry their belongings on Ellis Island in the early 1900s. – PhotoQuest/Archive Photos/Getty Images

As part of the revitalization project, millions more people will be able to research their ancestry at the site. The museum’s searchable database will expand to include nearly 90 million additional arrival records from ports across the United States, according to the foundation.

“In broadening the database to have not just the Port of New York records, but records from the Port of San Francisco, and from New Orleans, and so on, we broaden that experience that so frequently right now brings people to tears,” he says.

A rendering shows plans for a renovated Records Discovery Center at the museum. The records center is the “emotional core” of a visit to the island and often leaves visitors in tears, says Jesse Brackenbury, president and CEO of the Statue of Liberty – Ellis Island Foundation. – Courtesy Statue of Liberty – Ellis Island Foundation

After decades of disrepair, a new museum was born

The brick building that currently houses the museum opened in 1900. After processing more than 12 million immigrants, Ellis Island closed its doors in 1954 and fell into disrepair for decades.

“It was a ruin. … There were trees growing in the great hall,” the foundation’s former CEO says in a video posted on its website.

Ellis Island’s Great Hall is seen in 1986, before restoration work that paved the way for the historic site to reopen as a museum in 1990. – Courtesy Statue of Liberty – Ellis Island Foundation

The long-neglected island’s fortunes changed in 1982, when then-President Ronald Reagan asked Chrysler Chairman Lee Iacocca to lead a private fundraising campaign to restore the historic site along with neighboring Liberty Island, home to the Statue of Liberty.

Millions of dollars in restoration work left the main hall of the storied facility gleaming. And as a result of a public-private partnership between the foundation and the National Park Service, which operates the site, more than 50 million visitors have passed through its doors since it reopened to the public as a museum in 1990.

But that was more than 30 years ago. And Brackenbury says additional renovations are sorely needed.

“Right now, it can feel in places like a book on the walls, because it’s a 34-year-old museum,” Brackenbury says. “We’re adding close to 100 media pieces — films and interactives. When you walk in the front door, that experience will be transformed.”

The first time he visited the museum, years before he was named the foundation’s president, Brackenbury recalls scrambling to entertain his kids so his wife could enjoy the building and exhibits. He hopes renovations will give visitors of all ages a chance to connect with the museum’s history, no matter how much time they have to explore it.

“If you only have 40 minutes until you catch that next boat so you can get back for your Broadway show, we want it to be powerful,” he says. “We want it to be immediate. We want it to engage not just somebody who’s a historian, but also the historian’s kid or grandkid.”

A rendering shows plans for a renovated Baggage Room, including a 120-foot media screen which Brackenbury says will transform the experience for visitors arriving at the museum. – Courtesy Statue of Liberty – Ellis Island Foundation

Galleries will feature ‘powerful personal stories’

Interior renovations at the museum will coincide with a National Park Service project rehabilitating the exterior of the Main Immigration Building, including repairs to masonry, windows, skylights and roofing.

Some interior HVAC work has already started. And it won’t be long before visitors start to see more visible signs of construction, like scaffolding, at the site, Brackenbury says.

The museum will remain open during renovations, he says, which will occur in phases and are scheduled to be completed in 2026.

Plans to revitalize the museum’s interior are 60% funded as the public campaign to raise additional funding begins, the foundation says.

Brackenbury is hoping that in addition to having a chance to research their family histories, more Americans also will see themselves in the museum in other ways.

Donors who contribute at least $18.92 to the project — in honor of the year Ellis Island opened — will be able to see their names listed on a digital registry in its renovated baggage room.

“We hope to have everyone across the country feel like this national monument is a national effort that everyone can really pitch in on,” Brackenbury says.

This 1907 photo shows the main hall of the United Station immigration inspection station on Ellis Island, where new immigrants lined the benches as they awaited processing and an American flag hung from the second floor. – Smith Collection/Gado/Archive Photos/Getty Images

When updates are complete, the National Museum of Immigration on Ellis Island will also include:

• A timeline guiding visitors through centuries of history across new galleries on the museum’s three floors
• New films, interactive exhibits and soundscapes featuring “powerful personal stories of immigrant journeys, and the history of how immigrants have shaped America’s economy and culture”
• Self-guided tours in 12 languages, including tours in American Sign Language, a descriptive audio tour for visitors who are blind or low-vision and a family-friendly tour for kids ages 6-10
• More seating for visitors, WiFi throughout the building and additional bathrooms

The physical changes will be significant, Brackenbury says, but even more important is the emotional impact that he hopes will happen when the museum becomes more immersive and less of a “book on the wall.”

“It will be more powerful,” he says.

Brackenbury says he hopes the updated museum will inspire more visitors to learn more about their own family’s journeys – and America’s story.

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