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What Stories Can American Historical Museums Present?

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Neil Genzlinger has a thought provoking piece on the dark side of Ellis Island and American immigration, which he rightfully says is underplayed at the museum:

But there’s another side to our national welcome mat that doesn’t get so much attention, even though these days it often seems more in tune with the country’s mood. It’s the side that said, “Scram; we don’t want you.”

Yes, that’s certainly true. Ellis Island tells a less than complete story, one that insinuates that, in the end, immigrants were welcomed into this country. That’s not really true, as anti-immigrant movements from the Know-Nothings to California’s Workingmen’s Party to the eugenicists of the Progressive Era worked, eventually successfully, to close our nation’s doors. And when they reopened in 1965, the anti-immigrant movements started up again, in more recent times with groups like the Minutemen.

But I have a hard time blaming the curators of the Ellis Island exhibits for this. Because in America, you can only tell certain stories about the past. Over time, Americans have slowly come to accept more complex histories. For instance, after the 1960s, the horrors of slavery became more accepted and eventually, most Americans have even been OK with telling the story of Thomas Jefferson’s sexual relationship with Sally Hemings.

But that’s something of an exception. When Americans go to a history museum, which they don’t do very often, they want stories that make them feel good about themselves. Openly critical stories at major museums are harshly denounced, such as the Enola Gay exhibit in the mid 1990s. At smaller museums, viewers write scathing critiques that are taken very seriously by institutions with limited funding and who are often dependent on the state for survival.

I actually feel that Ellis Island does an OK job presenting the dark side of American immigration history. There’s a whole room dedicated to it. It might make a truer story to center anti-immigrant movements and the stories of those who were unjustly denied entry or were later deported without good cause, but the question any museum director has to ask is, “who will come see an exhibit?” In an age of overheated politics and tenuous funding lines, they have a real good reason for thinking in these terms. And telling any story that puts Americans, past or present, in a critical light is risky.

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