When the Ellis Island Immigration Museum opened
on September 8th, 1990, in a gala celebration attended by a host of dignitaries,
one of the most prominent features on display was a series of permanent
audio installations that bring alive the sounds of America's immigrant
In association with the Liberty/Ellis Island Collaborative – three
design, communication and exhibition fabrication firms selected by the
National Park Service from competitive bids – Murray Street worked
for almost two years to plan and complete the sound aspect of the museum’s
The focal point of the $162 million Ellis Island restoration project,
the 100,000 square foot museum, is housed in the island’s Main Building
where twelve million new arrivals were processed during the period from
1892 to 1924.
Sound is a critical part of two of the museum’s four major exhibits,
“Through America’s Gate” and “Peak Immigration
Years,” as well as integral to the displays in the building’s
“Baggage and Registry Rooms.”
The audio aspect of the Ellis Island Museum exhibits actually broke down
into 27 separate sound productions, for which Murray Street Enterprise
employed a staff of ten. Steve Rathe, producer Lauren Krenzel, and associate
producer Donna Gallers supervised the project.
Tasks included evaluation of 200 hours of oral history tapes collected
by the National Park Service, and the technical clean-up and audio processing
of those tapes; original interviews in nine cities with immigrants or
their descendants; collection of archive music from public and private
sources; and mixing and editing to create multi-track sound montages.
Much of the original sound collection by Murray Street was done digitally.
”Essentially, Ellis Island was a bureaucratic center with few really
fascinating material objects,” says senior producer Steve Rathe.
“With this spare picture in mind, the designers of the museum decided
that a good way to bring alive the ghosts of Ellis Island was to have
their voices fill its rooms.”
Today’s tourists arrive by boat at the historic ferry slip and proceed
to the former Baggage Room, the same route taken by the immigrants. In
addition to a display featuring hundreds of antique trunks, suitcases
and baskets, visitors will pick up phone receivers to hear remembrances
of personal objects brought by newcomers from Czechoslovakia, Switzerland,
Hungary, England and Macedonia, among other countries.
The next stop on the immigrants’ route is one flight up –
the Registry Room, the emotional core of Ellis Island. For this site,
Murray Street Enterprise devised a series of montages in which immigrants
describe the ordeal of processing, which included lengthy waits for medical
and legal inspection. Visitors can also hear this audio installation through
phone receiver stations, called “listening posts.”
The audio work for “Through America’s Gates,” one of
the four major exhibits, is heard on speakers in 11 of 14 rooms, as ambience
that recreates the atmosphere of the 1918-1924 period. These small rooms,
all opening up to each other, contain visual displays of historic photographs,
artifacts and personal papers. Voices of the past fill the rooms like
ghosts, whispering memories that describe the human drama that occurred
at Ellis Island.
For another of the major display areas, “The Peak Immigration Years:
1880-1924,” tapes again are heard on listening posts in a 10-room
exhibition grouped around a sky lit atrium. Among other reminiscences,
the audio for this exhibit includes immigrant descriptions of the voyage
to America, including the first glimpse of the Statue of Liberty and the
sight of New York harbor at dawn. Sounds, such as fog horns, water and
gulls, enrich the audio stories.
For further information on the Ellis Island
Immigration Museum, please click