Swiss immigrants to be remembered in New York

Ellis Island is set to inspire a Swiss migration museum Keystone

New York's renowned Ellis Island museum is looking to stage a special exhibition on the lives of Swiss immigrants to the United States.

This content was published on August 29, 2003 minutes

The task of preparing the exhibition has been handed to a Swiss cultural organisation that is currently seeking to set up its own migration museum in Switzerland.

Formerly a gateway for some 12 million immigrants, Ellis Island was converted into a museum in 1990. Its permanent collection of artefacts and immigrant accounts along with its temporary exhibitions could now serve as a role model for the Swiss project.

“We know that we can’t really copy what they have on Ellis Island,” admits Migration Museum project leader Markus Hodel. “Not least because the island’s physical location is itself an important part of immigration history.

"But using Switzerland as an example, we can also demonstrate to the Swiss people how immigration has acted as a motor for human development throughout history.

“The idea for the temporary exhibition came about after some of our people paid a visit to Ellis Island. They asked us to prepare some proposals and now they’ve given their approval to an exhibition that could run for up to four months.”

Money problems

But just as it was for the impoverished Swiss settlers who headed for the US at the turn of the last century, money could be an issue.

Hodel expects that the cost of mounting the exhibition will be well over a million Swiss francs, and the Migration Museum doesn't have an impressive track record when it comes to fund raising.

Founded in 1998, the Migration Museum association aims to establish a permanent home for presentations and discussions dealing with issues of migration. Plans to secure a possible location in Zurich failed earlier this year though, when the association was unable to find the necessary SFr2 million ($1.5 million).

The total cost of a permanent museum is estimated at up to SFr10 million, a figure that seems far beyond the organisation's reaches in the current economic climate.

"It's certainly not a good time to raise funds for cultural projects," admits Hodel, "and most of the hurdles we have faced have been financial."

Nevertheless, Hodel remains confident that funding can be found for at least the Ellis Island exhibition. The federal government, which is already backing the planning phase of the Swiss museum project, will make a decision on possible further support in the autumn.

Challenging misconceptions

While no details have yet been worked out regarding the New York exhibition, the project will aim to challenge popular misconceptions about the Switzerland of the early nineteenth century, as well as about the Switzerland of today.

"I think many people still aren't aware of the fact that Switzerland was not a wealthy country at the start of the last century," says Hodel. "It was only the subsequent economic and social improvements that saw Switzerland change from being a nation of emigrants to one which attracted immigrants.

"What is not stressed enough, however, is the way in which immigrants to Switzerland have formed a major part of that success. So we would want to highlight some of the success stories and make people see more of the positive effects of immigration."

As it prepares its concept for Ellis Island, the association is still investigating possible sites for its Swiss base, including another location in Zurich and even a converted boat which could be used as a transportable museum.

If the necessary money for a permanent home can't be found before 2006, however, the history of Swiss migration may well be heading for a New York premiere.

swissinfo, Mark Ledsom

Ellis Island

More than 12 million immigrants passed through Ellis Island between 1892 and 1954.
The island was declared part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument in 1965.
Reopened as a museum in 1990, the island now holds a permanent collection and temporary exhibitions dedicated to the subject of immigration.

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