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Ellis Island is America's most famous and historically important gateway. Between 1892 and 1924, over 12 million immigrants passed through this processing station, dreams in tow. Today, its Immigration Museum delivers a poignant tribute to the immigrant experience: with narratives from historians, the immigrants themselves and other sources, it brings to life a hefty collection of personal objects, official documents, photographs and film footage. Always purchase your tickets online in advance (at www.statuecruises.com) to avoid the soul-crushingly long queues.
When you arrive, stop in the museum lobby to pick up your free audioguide, which offers rich insight into the exhibitions. If you're very short on time, skip the Journeys: The Peopling of America 1550–1890 exhibit on the 1st floor and focus on the 2nd floor. Here you'll find the two most fascinating exhibitions. The first, Through America's Gate, examines the step-by-step process faced by the newly arrived – including the chalk-marking of those suspected of illness, a wince-inducing eye examination, and 29 questions – in the beautiful, vaulted Registry Room. The second, Peak Immigration Years: 1880–1924, explores the motives behind the immigrants' journeys and the challenges they faced in beginning their new American lives.
For a history of the rise, fall and resurrection of the building itself, make time for the Restoring a Landmark exhibition on the 3rd floor; its tableaux of trashed desks, chairs and other abandoned possessions are strangely haunting. The audio tour offers optional, in-depth coverage for those wanting to delve deeper into the collections and the island's history. If you don't feel like opting for the audio tour, you can always pick up one of the phones in each display area and listen to the affecting recorded memories of actual people who came through Ellis Island, taped in the 1980s.
Another option is the free, 45-minute guided tour with a park ranger, which you should book in advance. (The tour is also available in American Sign Language.) If you have ancestors who came through Ellis Island, you can look up their ship manifests and immigration records in the American Family Immigration History Center on the 1st floor and get them printed out for display for a fee (the same information is available for online search at home at www.ellisisland.org).