Immigrant Voices from America’s “Forgotten Gateway”: A Model for Civic Engagement in a Museum Setting

April 27, 2012

Immigrant Voices from America’s “Forgotten Gateway”: A Model for Civic Engagement in a Museum Setting

Suzanne Seriff, Ph.D

University of Texas at Austin

Museums and Social Issues, Vol. 3, No. 2, Fall 2008

Left Coast Press, Inc.

All Copyrights Apply


Keywords: Immigration, Migration, Galveston, Texas, Port of Entry, Forgotten Gateway, Civic Engagement, Immigration Exhibits, Museum Studies, Dialogic Exhibits


Biography: Trained in anthropology and folklore, Dr. Seriff has curated numerous community and national exhibits that move beyond the gallery walls to feature civic engagement around important issues of our day: tradition and innovation in the global marketplace; museums as safe places for scary conversations; and tourist, immigrant, and ethnic arts in a transnational world.


Abstract: From Benjamin Franklin’s tirades against German immigrants in the mid-18th century, to the Chinese Exclusion Act in the 19th, and the National Quota Act of the 20th, our nation has demonstrated a consistent history of tension over whom we collectively regard as “real Americans” and whom we will allow into this country. This article explores the challenges and rewards of rooting an historical museum exhibit on American immigration in community collaboration and dialogue between contemporary immigrants and immigrant descendants. Curator Suzanne Seriff discusses innovative strategies employed in an upcoming NEH-funded traveling exhibit on historical immigration through Galveston, Texas which engage contemporary stakeholders in an active dialogue about enduring questions facing our country as a “nation of immigrants” including, “Who should be an American?” and “Who gets to decide?”



Immigrant Voices from America’s “Forgotten Gateway”

By Suzanne Seriff, Ph.D

University of Texas at Austin


On a cold and windy morning in March, 2002, 18 high school sophomores from a synagogue class in Austin, Texas, huddle at Battery Park, on the tip of Manhattan Island. Before they board the ferry to take them to Ellis Island to explore their Jewish immigrant roots, they witness a dedication ceremony of the first official memorial to the September 11th attack on the World Trade Center, which occurred just blocks away, exactly six months earlier. 


The students’ conversations reflect the restless mood of the nation. As one of the religious school chaperones, I field their fears about 9/11, and their questions about national security, terrorism, immigration reform, and tighter homeland security. We are literally standing between two of the most powerful symbols of our nation’s history: the Statue of Liberty, symbol of our proud immigrant past, and Ground Zero, a physical representation of fear of those who came from outside our national borders to harm us.


While this point in history is unique, the ambivalence in our national story of immigrants and immigration is not. It is a story that flip-flops between a proud portrait of ourselves as a “nation of immigrants” and an alarmist view of immigrants as a threat to the national or economic security of “native-born” Americans.  It wavers now and, historically, always has.


Later in the morning, a student who had been checking the Ellis Island records for the names of his great-grandparents complains, “These aren’t my ancestors. We came in through the port of Galveston. Why did I come all the way to New York, when my immigrant roots are back home in Texas?”


This is the moment of conception of “Forgotten Gateway: Coming to America Through Galveston Island,” a collaborative exhibition project currently being developed by The Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin, Texas and generously supported with funding, in part, from the National Endowment for the Humanities “We the People” awards. The exhibit, which is slated to open at the Texas State History Museum (TSHM) in February of 2009, will subsequently travel around the country in two versions: a 6,000 square foot exhibit with over 150 original artifacts, five multi-media programs and over a dozen interactive components, slated for major history museums and historic sites in Texas and around the country, and a smaller, interactive community-based version, slated for underserved libraries, immigration centers, schools, churches and rural museums. Both versions are designed to accomplish two goals:

1) To raise awareness of the role of Galveston Island as one of the top ten trans-oceanic gateways to the United States between the years of 1845, when Texas joined the Union, and 1924, when the National Quota Act severely curtailed immigration to the United States; and,

2) To use this little-known piece of American history as a lens through which to explore recurring issues that have defined the immigrant experience throughout our country’s history—including today.


To achieve these goals, an exhibits team at TSHM—including myself as Project Co-Director and Guest Curator -- has spent the last four years talking and working with kids, adults and old folks in immigrant neighborhoods, in the museum, at teacher workshops, professional conferences, libraries, in public school classrooms, and national archives around the country to determine successful ways for history museums to use the stories of the nation’s immigrant past as a way in to people’s contemporary experiences and thoughts, and to use their everyday experiences as a way to better understand the past around the topic of immigration.


Before developing the content of the exhibit, the project team took three major actions: the team sought to understand how existing museums and historic sites have creatively addressed immigration issues both within and beyond their gallery walls; the team committed extensive time and resources to outreach in immigrant communities to understand how civic engagement could address immigration issues through dialogue and the arts; and finally, based on this research, the team developed an interactive approach to exhibit design and content that will not only present the historical material in terms of larger humanities issues and questions, but also pave the way for visitor dialogue and engagement around these issues.


The journey began in mid-2005 with a visit to museums and historic sites that have creatively addressed the landscape of immigrant history as a tool for visitor education and engagement. Two examples are located in the nation's immigrant heartland of New York City. The Ellis Island Immigration Museum is an historic site containing three floors of permanent and temporary exhibits and audio-visual displays interpreting the operations of this immigrant processing station between 1892 and 1954 (Chermayeff, Wasserman, and Shapiro, 1991). The Lower East Side Tenement Museum picks up where the Ellis Island Museum leaves off, by presenting the lives of those immigrants who settled for a time in one of New York City’s most renowned immigrant neighborhoods, and using their stories as catalysts for visitor engagement around key immigrant issues (Abram, 2007).


These sites represent only a partial picture of the diverse immigrant populations and patterns that characterize our nation’s immigrant history. Among those 30 million or more immigrants who arrived by ship's steerage, more than 6 million were bound for a dozen other seaport destinations on our nation's eastern, western, and southern shores (Stolarik, 1988). Still others arrived at their destinations in chains and shackles -- far removed from the freedom of an official immigrant processing port. These stories are beginning to be told at historic immigrant sites and museums throughout the United States. The Japanese American National Museum and the Angel Island Immigration Station, both on the West Coast, focus on particular immigrant groups (Japanese and Chinese) that have been largely excluded from the mainstream U.S. immigrant history. An innovative exhibit at the Minnesota Historical Museum called “Open House: If These Walls Could Talk,” shines a light on a single, existing St. Paul house as a window into the daily lives and hidden dramas of multiple working-class immigrant families who lived there over the years, from the original German immigrant builders in 1888 through Italians, African Americans, and today’s Hmong inhabitants.


At each of these site, a landmark in America’s trans-oceanic immigrant history is used as the foundation on which to engage the public in questions concerning race and gender-based exclusions, detentions, and deportations; social welfare and responsibility; immigrant settlement patterns; the process of navigating the bureaucracy; and forced migrations resulting from human trafficking and political expulsions. Each site’s interpretive programming also works to motivate visitors to make a personal connection between themselves and the immigrant stories told there. Projects such as these have expanded our understanding of the multifaceted patterns of our nation’s immigrant history, while at the same time reaching out to their audiences to actively engage in dialogue and discussion about the topic at hand.


The next step was to apply these practices of civic engagement to the proposed exhibit. The process started with a two-day workshop, led by our mentors from the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, to train the staff at TSHM in the art of engaging visitors, stakeholders, and community members as active learners in this type of history exhibit. Also during that first summer of research, the project organized, in partnership with Humanities Texas, a statewide workshop for middle and high school teachers. It took place in Galveston and tested approaches to audience engagement on the topic of Galveston as a landmark site for American immigration. That workshop focused on the use of primary source documents and landmark sites—including letters, photographs, passports, city maps, city architecture, oral histories, journals and period art—to uncover forgotten stories of the lives, attitudes, and experiences not only of the immigrants themselves, but of the medical inspectors, federal officials, legislators, newspaper reporters, entrepreneurs, and general citizenry who came in contact with them. Later that summer, the Museum, under the direction of the visitor research firm, People, Places, and Design Research, conducted a front-end study that would determine the level of knowledge and interest that the wider public might bring to this topic. The Museum team not only polled museum-goers, but went into community centers, restaurants, churches, grocery stores and libraries to talk to folks about what they knew, what they thought, and what interested them about immigration into Texas and the United States both historically and in the present day.


To broaden the discussion and to include another set of stakeholders, the project initiated a second facet of research, which centered on a round of neighborhood projects, workshops, and conversations on the issues and stories of more recent immigrants. Out of this work emerged a community advisory committee and a set of goals for community initiatives: 1) to foster engagement with recent immigrants to Texas and the United States; 2) to initiate a dialogue among and between immigrants on the broad issues explored in our project; 3) to develop programmatic prototypes for activities to be included in our traveling community outreach; and 4) to build awareness of our Museum’s overall mission and spark interest in the exhibit in advance of its opening.


The finding from these first two phases of research was clear -- the most effective approach to representing this piece of American immigrant history was to allow visitors to be part of the discovery of the stories, and to frame what they are learning through the lens of their own personal lives.


Another clear finding was that, although Texas is frequently headlined in current national immigration stories, its history as a major maritime gateway remains totally unfamiliar. Our person-on-the-street interviews indicated that even most longtime Texans were not aware of its history as a significant Gulf Coast immigrant port from Europe, or as a major route for slave traders before the Civil War.  Rather, it is Texas’ southern border with Mexico that has been the predominant focus—both in state and nationally—for discussion around the topic of immigration.


The third and final step was to use this preliminary research to develop a set of themes that would both engage the public in this slice of our nation’s immigrant history, and motivate visitors to make a personal connection between themselves and the immigrant stories told there.


We started with themes that were common to the migrant experience across time and space: deciding or being forced to leave one place for another; dangers of the journey; confronting discrimination, navigating bureaucracy, finding support, and making a new start in a new land. 


Then, a second tier of themes was developed which pick up where most immigration exhibits leave off. These focused on larger forces, patterns, and characteristics of immigrant gateways and experiences. These themes are broad and somewhat abstract and the challenge was to find a way to illustrate them through an interpretive framework and design that was still dedicated to engaging visitors in the process of discovery. The five themes are as follows:


Theme I: Immigration is Patterned

The dominant image of immigration to America is of individual men, women and children who permanently depart their place of birth and travel great distances to make a new home and better life for themselves. But as scholars point out, immigration is not random, individual acts, but is patterned (Mintz, 2008). When immigration is looked at over time and space, it is possible to see distinct patterns or “waves” of changing demographics (where people come from and where they enter and settle), changing policies (affecting how “open” or “closed” the nation is to receiving immigrants) and changing numbers. Part of the challenge of presenting the full migration story is recognizing how, why, and when governments, economic forces, media, and populations at-large participate in the migration process and for what reasons (Sassen, 1999; Massey et al, 1987; Brettell and Hollifield, 2000; Portes and Rumbaut, 1996). The exhibit team for Forgotten Gateway decided to take on this challenge by embedding individual stories in four specific historical periods and framing those periods in terms of the laws, attitudes, and demographics that define the immigration flows—both locally and nationally—in those times.


Theme II: Migration Comes in Different Forms

Scholars point out that migrations take many different forms. They can be forced as well as voluntary, temporary or permanent, short distance or long distance, one-time or repeated. Some immigrants to this country were known to come for only a short time to earn money and then return to their home countries; others came under duress, either under force as the objects of human trafficking, or forced out of their home countries as refugees. Forgotten Gateway addresses this theme by boldly including stories of Galveston as a gateway for the migration of slaves who were forced here; “guest” laborers who came and returned to their home countries; Chinese laborers who were brought here to work; and refugees fleeing political unrest in their own countries.


Theme III: Gateways Matter

New York Harbor, with its images of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, epitomizes immigrant entry. Between 1820 and 1920, nearly 24 million immigrants entered there, but another six million entered elsewhere, including more than 100,000 into Galveston, one of the nation’s top ten immigrant receiving ports of that century. Each gateway city offered a unique experience, attracting different immigrant populations based on its industries and partnerships with railroads and shipping companies (Stolarik, 1988). Forgotten Gateway explores the importance of place to the immigrant experience through a focus on Galveston Island as it changed from a small port for sailing vessels, to a major cosmopolitan steamship and railroad hub, and back to a nearly abandoned immigrant port.


Theme IV: Immigration Means Big Business

In each successive wave of immigration to the United States, there are those who thrive from the business of immigration—providing transportation, housing, land, jobs, services, protection and supplies to the newcomers. Forgotten Gateway illustrates the many interlocking facets of immigration as a business venture in each successive wave by introducing visitors to the multiple stakeholders of the time in the areas of transportation, labor, government, agriculture, media, banking, social services and ranching who each play a role in enticing (or enslaving) newcomers to the state and the nation (Rozek, 2003).


Theme V: Immigration is tied to National Identity Building

From Benjamin Franklin’s tirades against German immigrants in the mid-18th century, to the Chinese Exclusion Act more than a hundred years later, Americans have demonstrated a consistent history of tension over who we collectively regard as “real Americans” and therefore who we would allow into this country (Daniels, 1997; Hing, 2004; Jacoby, 2004; Luibhéid 2002). Forgotten Gateway explores the changing tides of our nations’ attitudes toward the latest wave of newcomers and how they affected the immigration process at each successive period in Galveston’s history as an immigrant port.


In order to bring these themes to life, the Museum reached across Texas--and beyond—to discover the most compelling stories of those who came to America via Galveston. In addition to primary source document research in museum collections, university and government archives, county courthouses, and local history centers, we decided that there is no substitute for real live storytellers, and we devoted months to finding living family descendants of the folks whose stories we wanted to tell, to ask them directly about their family lore, memories and precious family artifacts.


Our treasure hunt has led us to conversations with Czech, German, Japanese, Chinese, Wendish, Swedish, Italian, Greek, Hispanic, Native American, Jewish and African-American descendants, to name only a few. They have provided family stories of trailblazers who forged the way for entire villages to make a new home in a new land; stories of forced migration of Africans who were brought from other southern states through Galveston to work as slaves; stories of conflict between Native Americans, Hispanics, Anglos and European newcomers over who owns the land and who has a right to its resources; tales of “guest laborers” who were brought from Europe under false promises of high pay or free land; tales of  racial and  religious profiling of unwanted classes of immigrants resulting in their detention or deportation; tales of the Ku Klux Klan’s rise in power in the 1920s on an anti-immigrant nativist platform, and their big splash at the Texas State Fair on Ku  Klux Klan Day in 1923; and stories of immigrant boats turned back to Europe at the onset of WWI, leading to the tragic fate of 1,000s of displaced refugees.


This approach was particularly fruitful in discovering the stories of a very particular subset of immigrant descendants—namely Texas and Midwestern Jews --whose parents and grandparents immigrated to the United States through Galveston between 1907 and 1914 as part of an organized plan to save them from the pogroms of Czarist Russia, and Poland, and bring them to safety in the United States with promises of jobs and homes throughout the Midwestern States. This year, 2008, marks the 101st anniversary of the start of this movement, which succeeded in saving over 10,000 Jews from annihilation in Europe, while diverting them from the already overcrowded and immigrant-weary tenements of New York City and the East Coast (Marinbach, 1983).


At the same time that the Museum team gathered these stories of our immigrant history, we also reached out to contemporary immigrant communities. The goal was to hear their stories, learn their dreams and challenges, and engage them in meaningful conversations about how their stories of leaving and coming to a new place compare and/or contrast with those who came before. Gathering these stories has taken outreach staff into local schools, community centers, health care clinics and libraries throughout Central Texas. Immigrants reached were from every continent and over 40 countries. These programs, in turn, have resulted in small mini exhibits, festivals, workshops, summer camps, and other products that have been exhibited throughout Austin, and even as far away as Washington, D.C. at the American Immigration Law Foundation. Examples of such immigrant outreach programs include:

 *         Semester-long workshops for immigrant and refugee students to tell the stories of their families’ journeys to the United States through comic strip illustrations and handmade books and memory boxes.

 *         Year-long workshops with parents of immigrant and neighborhood  children in a bi-racial community resulting in an annotated “newcomer’s guide” to the neighborhood, with stories, letters, maps, and advice to newcomers.

*          An oral history documentation project conducted in coordination with local naturalization ceremonies that can be hosted at the school, the courthouse, or a local museum site. The focus of the program centers on stories gathered from immigrants on the day of their naturalization ceremony as citizens of the United States.

 *         A photo essay and oral history project featuring portraits and stories of recent immigrants that can be displayed at community centers, libraries, restaurants and schools.

*          A collaboration with neighborhood health clinics, comprising weekly workshops with migrants from the neighborhood that focus on   health issues and result in an exhibit in the waiting room area of the neighborhood clinics.


Project staff has also developed collaborative partnerships with over a dozen visual arts institutions, film societies and youth theater groups to develop exhibitions, symposia, performances, lectures, screenings and workshops around the topic of immigration through Texas gateways. Also initiated is an ongoing program to work with immigrant youth — in targeted schools, after school programs, and community centers — to write, direct and create films, art pieces, animations and plays based on original oral historical work with immigrants and immigrant descendants in Texas. Each of these collaborative projects will be performed, exhibited, and discussed at immigrant arts festivals, art crawls, symposia, lectures, exhibits, book club events, and performances throughout the city during the exhibit’s ten-month premiere in Austin.


 These stories, while particular to the Texas landscape, are also national stories. It was this realization that convinced the exhibit team that this exhibit should travel to maritime port cities and railhead cities throughout Texas and the United States, and that the exhibits’ grass-roots and community-based planning process could serve as a model for host sites to relate their own stories. Toward this end, the team has carefully documented their processes of oral history collecting; primary source document and artifact research; community photo scanning and story-gathering sessions, and grass roots arts programming, and developed an extensive public history “community kit” for each host site to use to augment the exhibit with their own communities’ immigrant history. The kit invites visitors and community members to learn how to piece together historic objects, photographs, records, and maps to tell a coherent story about their own community, and to create a safe place for dialog across the generations.


Finally, the museum team has worked hard to develop a format for the exhibits — both large and small versions — that would answer the American Association of Museum’s 2002 challenge to its constituencies to become places “where people can gather to meet and converse and participate in collaborative problem solving” around enduring humanities themes. For this topic, in particular, we chose an approach that we hope will involve visitors in an active process of discovering stories, noting patterns and drawing connections to their own life experiences (McClean, 1999).


The exhibit will be organized around five kinds of experiences with differing levels of discovery and modes of learning. They include:


1) Recreated environments which simulate the sights, sounds, and feel of the gateway experience at four pivotal points in Galveston—and our nation's—immigrant history. The recreated environments combine a 3-4 minute video, an interactive map activity, and other visitor interactives.  Each environment reflects the predominant humanities theme explored in the section: an ox cart piled high with immigrant trunks evokes the promises — fulfilled and broken — of migration to a wilderness land in the first wave of transoceanic travel before the Civil War; a bustling railroad station luggage trolley mirrors the theme of immigration as big business at a time when newcomers were enticed to colonize the state in the post-war wave; the inspection room of a federal immigration station sets the scene to explore America's rising xenophobia — and legal restrictions—toward “foreign aliens” at the point of entry at the turn of the 20th century; a boarded-up door of the station evokes the dramatic shift in policy and practice toward immigration as local, national and international events resulted in the close of the federal inspection station on Galveston island (McComb, 1986).


2) Case exhibits featuring original artifacts, photographs, label texts and quotes, take advantage of TSHM's years of community, archival, and oral historical research to dynamically portray a theme through the stories of specific individuals. For example, the theme of chain migration is brought to life with the story of one young minister from northeastern Bohemia—Arnost Bergman—who set out alone to Texas. His new life sparked an exodus of family members, neighbors and townsmen from Bohemia and Silesia. The case will feature his optimistic letter home; the autobiography of the man who read his letter and set out with his family and neighbors to follow him to the new land; an 18th century Bible brought by one of the early Czech Bohemian settlers, and a hand-operated wood music box, illustrating the dreams of starting a new life filled with prosperity and free expression in a new land. After reading the story of these 19th century pioneers, visitors are encouraged to contribute their own thoughts to what would persuade a whole community or family to leave their  homes today, and what they might take with them on the journey if they did.


3) Activity areas invite visitors of all ages to actively explore and engage with the section themes. As visitors approach the area on forced migration, for example, they have the opportunity to interact with three separate ships manifests from the 1840s and discover clues on the documents as to what the three featured ships were carrying: cargo, slaves, or passengers. Map activities at each of the four sections provide an opportunity for visitors to test their knowledge of geography and demography by charting changes in where immigrants were coming from, and going to, and by what means they traveled to and through Texas.


4) Multi-media components bring to life the immigrant experience to America at four distinct points in Galveston's history as a maritime gateway. Through period photographs, newspaper and film clips, period political cartoons, promotional literature, artistic renderings, and personal history clips, these media pieces dynamically illustrate the look and feel of immigration through Galveston's gates during distinct periods in our nation's history.


5) Reflection stations connect visitors to humanities themes and exhibit content to their own lives. A station titled “Today?” invites visitors to relate the historic issue they have just learned about to the personal experience narrative of two or more contemporary immigrants from different parts of the world. Visitor response is prompted at these reflection stations by an evocative question such as: “What might motivate you to leave your home and settle in a new land?” In the last section of the exhibit, visitors are encouraged to add their families’ immigrant facts to a national timeline, and contribute to an ongoing story wall that further portrays their personal snapshots of their own immigrant history.


We live in a country of immigrants. History is an opportunity for people to see connections between their immediate reality and the larger context of their family’s stories, their community’s stories, and their nation’s stories. The Forgotten Gateway project provides an important and unique lens into that immigration history. These stories shed light on a number of points in American immigration history which, in many ways, are much like today, when immigration policy is hotly debated; new restrictions for immigrants and tighter controls at the borders are under discussion; and the very nature of what kind of immigrant is a good immigrant is alive in daily conversation.


By the end of the exhibit, visitors will have encountered not only the historical facts of the importance of Galveston, they will have heard the stories of some of the people who landed at this island. They will have been given a chance to include their families’ own story, as well as compare the stories of more recent immigrants to our nation. They will have heard the immigrants’ motivations – promises made, kept, deferred and broken – and seen how these motivations were linked to the expansion of the nation and the global economy—both yesterday and today.  They will have experienced the fear of the immigrant standing in front of an inspector who does not speak her language, and the joy of having a kinsman who interprets, protects and deals compassionately with her.  They will have appreciated the fearlessness and courage of early settlers, who came on a promise that could be redeemed only after living through disease, war and depredations. They will have opportunities to feel the same courage in those who come today.


Visitors will also have learned about the rise in anti-immigrant sentiment and how that sentiment, along with an untimely storm and the onset of world war, eventually created too high a barrier for immigration through this gateway on the Gulf.


They will have studied objects from the journey and heard sounds of waves, trains, whistles and human voices. They will have turned wheels, lifted window shades, opened drawers, examined inspection cards, and contributed their immigrant facts on an immigration timeline.  They will have been moved by media images displayed on luggage, deciphered maps and timelines, and answered well-posed questions that stir action and inquisitiveness.


Our goal is that visitors will move through the exhibits as active learners.  They have been invited to suspend disbelief to become part of recreated environments. They have been challenged to be immigrants, negotiators and history detectives.


Visitors are invited to move back and forth between the 19th century and today. They have been asked to understand others who do not look like their family and to better understand how their family mirrors the lives of those who have journeyed to this nation before them.


In short, our hope is that visitors will step through the Forgotten Gateway and recover a key to their nation’s past, and in so doing, better understand the present, and become active contributors to the shape of our nation’s future.




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Funding information

The Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum received a grant for two traveling exhibitions and educational and public programming exploring immigration through the port of Galveston, Texas.