An Interview with Diana Pardue, Chief, Museum Services Division, Statue of Liberty NM and Ellis Island, New York
Thank you, thank you, good to be here.
I think it’s actually a very nice museum. I think it tells an interesting story about Hamburg’s history that I know people in the US don’t know about. But also, maybe, people here in Hamburg aren’t as familiar with the story about this emigrant city even if they grew up here.
I think yes. I mean, a lot of people from the US would be interested in hearing about it, because there are so many people in the US who are studying family history and who want to go and travel back to where their family came from. So this could be an obvious place for them to start. Hamburg is a great city, that’s obvious anyway, so maybe they fly directly to Hamburg.
The Ellis Island Immigration Museum was opened in 1990 after about a five-year rehabilitation of the historic main building and it contains about 100.000 squarefeet of exhibits and program space including two mini-theatres, a research library and a whole history area. And its mission is to tell the stories of the millions of immigrants who came to the US through Ellis Island from 1892 to 1954.
Well, there are obviously similarities and differences. The similarities are that they are both historic sites and they tell the story about particular sites. They fit into the overall story of migration from various countries into the US and in that part, they are very similar. Well, they are obviously two very different sizes. And Ellis Island also tells a little bit more the story of migration to the US in general during the years Ellis Island was open. For the future, we are planning to expand its permanent exhibits to talk about immigration to the US before Ellis Island and after Ellis Island. So in that way, they are somehow different.
Yeah, and actually that brings up another similarity as people passed through both places. I’m not sure how long they stayed in the Ballin-Stadt before they went on. Probably only a few days. And most at Ellis Island, 80% of the people, were only there a few hours. So they are both, as you said, gateways, they are stopping points on a bigger migration trail. But they do, I think in both cases, fill out the history of the stopping points in what happened at the stopping points.
One of the things that we became much more interested in in the last five or six years and since the opening of Ellis Island, is the world of the departure cities. And we work with some groups in Rotterdam and Antwerp, so this does fill a gap with what’s happening in Hamburg. And in each city there a differences in how the departure was handled. So that’s very much part of the story as well as the arrival in the US, at Ellis Island.
Well, actually, that’s one of the mistakes people have about Ellis Island. And actually, it brings up a good point. We know names were changed at Ellis Island because they were not writing anything down. They were actually just checking the ships’ passenger lists and those lists were actually created at their departure points. So the question would be, were names changed here? We do know that a lot of people changed their names themselves once they got into the US, because they themselves wanted to have a more American name. Then they legalized that change when they became American citizens. So in most cases, they were the ones who made the changes. But there’s this story that everybody has heard about names being changed at Ellis Island and they may have been called different names, verbally, but that was totally verbal.
Well, in the past it’s been primarily research. We provided them with the oral history interviews for the immigrants who came from Hamburg. And they’ve been able to use those audio interviews in their exhibits. And then we worked together on various research topics. I think for the future, we are talking about having more cooperation with regard to programs. We also, I think it was three summers ago, had an exhibit at Ellis Island on the port of Hamburg. So we have had a temporary exhibit at Ellis Island on Hamburg, and then we collaborated with research. But there is always more that could be done.
No, we have our own database that was developed with our foundation and the church of the Latter-day Saints, which is the basis of some of Ancestry’s database, basically all the New York passenger lists from 1892 to 1924. So we have our own database and our own family history center at Ellis Island.
Yes. Ancestry does an amazing job and they grow to include more things in their database just besides just the passenger lists. They also now have immigrant letters and we talked to them about including those oral histories. So, I think it’s a very good group to be working with.
I think there is a huge number of people. Well, Hamburg is a city very easy to get to from the US, so I could see thousands of people coming to Hamburg, why not?
Exactly, I mean, now that BallinStadt is open, people need to know about it. We all give the information to people, and I think it’s a natural thing for them to come here. As I said, it’s very easy to get here from the US and even if they want to go to other places in Germany, it makes sense for them to come to Hamburg directly, see BallinStadt, and then go on to see other things.
Genealogical research is extremely popular. It’s probably one of the most popular hobbies in the US now. People surf the computer and go through all these databases through Ancestry. The interesting thing about the BallinStadt is that there wasn’t just Germans leaving the country, they were primarily people from Eastern Europe and Russia. So they would perhaps be going through Hamburg on their way to Russia or the Czech Republic or wherever.
It’s an informal cooperation and that’s, quite frankly, the way we do most of our cooperations. We all work together and don’t have a formal document – because that’s too complicated, particularly with governments involved. We are all members of The Association of European Migration Institutions (AEMI), so that’s sort of an umbrella that we could say we can work under. That includes a lot of migration institutions in Europe. They allowed Ellis Island to be a member even if it’s not a European institution, because we are the one who connects all these places in many cases. These groups are museums as well as research institutions. They work together and they’ve been able to get funding through the EU for various projects including educational projects and tourism projects. There is an opportunity for these groups to get together for a conference, at least once a year.
Yes, each institution takes turn to host the meeting.
Yes! And it was actually one of these meetings, several years ago, that I first came to Hamburg. They were having a meeting in Bremerhaven, and we had an extra day. So we took the train and went to Hamburg and did the emigrant trail which they have on the tour busses.
I like that it’s a very active city. There are lots of things going on, very historic, lots of museums, lots of cultural activities, great restaurants, international food, wonderful people, very friendly (laughs).
Maybe, one question concerning BallinStadt and the emigration museum in Bremerhaven. We now have two emigration museums which also can be seen as competitors. What would be your approach to selling both Bremerhaven and Hamburg to the American tourists interested in genealogy?
Well, I would like to think that they would cooperate with each other, because I think that they have two different stories. I do think that because Hamburg is an easier city to get to, it would make sense for people to come to Hamburg first and then go to Bremerhaven. There are certain things that are highlighted in Bremerhaven that aren’t highlighted in Hamburg. There’s also the story of the two ports, and different families coming through the ports.
The story that is told in Hamburg isn’t really told in Bremerhaven. I like the story of this emigrant city being built up. People do want to know more about departure points and what was going on and what the procedures were. And I think BallinStadt does a really good job in telling that part of the story.
Yes, but we do have our private part as well. We work with two foundations and we raise money to able to do new programs. Actually, the whole south side of Ellis Island, all the Hospital buildings are in the process of being rehabilitated and eventually will be used. The government will contribute some money, but the private foundations will contribute additional money through fundraising. So we are also sort of a public-private-partnership.
Well, our government has decided they can’t pay for everything, so the Park Service will run the museum and I think that will always be the case. But other programs will probably be run by private organisations, by private foundations.
Absolutely. That’s why we don’t need to do marketing – one of the reasons we get so many visitors is because we are part of the Statue of Liberty. I would easily say that most of the people who come out to see us originally are coming out to visit the Statue of Liberty and then they also stop and see Ellis Island. In the summer it’s about 20.000 people a day. We have about four million people coming to see us per year and that’s for both the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. Over half of them are only coming for the Statue of Liberty. I’ve been able to see the site develop and it has developed more new programs. Every year it’s a little bit different, so it’s not boring at all.
It’s become one. It wasn’t originally, but it developed. It has become a subject matter that now I know very well. And I don’t really want to start over again somewhere else (laughs). And also the other thing is that I really enjoy living in New York. And I’m sure the other curator you interviewed (note: Gregory Knight, see interview in our first issue) loves living in Chicago – we are talking about two great cities and most people would die to live in either one of them.
Yes, several times. I love Chicago. I was just there in May because the National Museum Association had their annual meeting in Chicago. So I spent a week there, had a great time, saw all the museums, had perfect weather. It’s a very nice place.
We don’t have that. Our information is more about people just coming into the port of New York. As we said before, it was just a gateway. People were just passing through and we haven’t focussed a lot on where people went after they left Ellis Island. That’s primarily because in the United States there are all these other museums that have been doing that for years. In many ways, they are the best sources for that type of information. We have a little bit of this type of information in our exhibits just to give people an idea, but we really rely on the other cities. Actually, a number of years ago, we had a great exhibit from the Chicago Historical Society on Jewish women. It was called “Becoming An American Woman” and it really was a great exhibit.
We actually don’t. We bring in a lot of exhibits, but we really don’t have the staff to produce exhibits ourselves. We work with private groups who do travelling exhibits, and one travelling exhibit that’s going around now is the „Auguste Sherman Portraits“. This photo exhibit is being done through Aperture which is a major photographic foundation. Again, we try to work with other groups because we neither have the funding nor the staff to develop anything else than a very simple exhibit.
Actually, a lot of the exhibits are coming to us and then go on to Chicago. You know, Chicago is the other big immigration city. There are so many ethnic groups that they always say there are more people in Chicago than there are in their largest city back in their country of origin. This summer, for example, we have an exhibit on Luxemburg immigration – and after it leaves Ellis Island, it’s going to Chicago. Well, Luxemburg is one of the cultural capitals of Europe and this is part of their program. Sometimes, these very small countries like to do very big exhibits.
I didn’t realize that, but they said that back at the beginning of the 20th Century, close to one third of the people left Luxemburg, because it was a very poor country. And I‘ve heard this from other countries that all these people left and then they started sending back money, and they are now very wealthy countries. But they remain very close to all the people who left.
That’s actually something we have become very interested in. I think there’s a lot more return migration that people realize. Unfortunately, the US Government doesn’t really track people who leave the country, it’s very diffi cult to do. So in order to get some figures, you have to look at the places where people are going to. I heard that there was a huge number of families where the parents – the initial immigrants – and the children who were born in the country, once they got to a certain age, all left and went back to where their parents came from. This was also the case with some Asian countries like Korea and Vietnam. There were hundreds of thousands of people for example going to Vietnam because they could get ahead much better there than they could in the US.
I know from talking to people of other European countries that there was a lot more movement back then. You often have one family member who came to the US, started a business, made money, and then went back, got married, stayed there. Then his children or grand children went to the US and stayed there or finally went back. So even back in the 19th century, people didn’t just go somewhere and stayed but travelled back and forth.
Exactly. It’s very possible. And with this database we have on the New York passenger lists, we counted just everyone who was coming into New York harbour. So there were situations where we took records of people going back several times. So you are not only able to find your relatives who came to America the first time, but you can find them the second and third time as well (laughs).