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Ellis Island’s Hospital and Medical Facilities

[2007]
A front-end evaluation of an interpretive plan for a historic site
Save Ellis Island, Mount Olive, NJ

RK&A was contracted by Save Ellis Island (SEI) to conduct a front-end evaluation, funded by a National Endowment for the Humanities planning grant.  The objective for the evaluation was to examine Ellis Island’s visitors’ overall responses to the exhibit concepts, themes, and interpretive approaches for SEI’s planned interpretation of Ellis Island’s hospital and other medical facilities located on Ellis Island. 

How did we approach this study?

RK&A first participated in planning meetings with SEI and their team of consultants to explore ideas for interpreting the medical facilities of Ellis Island.  Upon reviewing the preliminary design plan, RK&A realized that the evaluation should also include visitors’ experiences in the Immigration Museum and on the Ferry Building tour, as both experiences set the stage for the interpretation of the hospital and medical facilities.  Thus, RK&A designed a study that included conducting in-depth interviews with 37 visitor groups (comprised of 57 individuals) to Ellis Island as follows: 22 interviews with groups on the ground floor of the Immigration Museum, and 15 interviews with groups following a Ferry Building tour. 

What did we learn?

For the most part, interviewees were unaware of Ellis Island’s hospital and medical facilities. Interviewees were interested to learn of the modernity and extent of the facilities and expressed surprise about the humane and often lengthy treatment of immigrants who arrived on Ellis Island needing care.  The multimedia and interactive elements of SEI’s planned interpretation elicited few comments from visitors, whereas opportunities to experience the buildings and learn about the stories that happened inside them captured visitors’ imaginations.  Visitors responded strongly to the authenticity of the place and its stories—the real-life human interest stories and opportunities for experiencing the buildings and artifacts of the past.  Nevertheless, findings showed that most of the visitors had little, if any, understanding of general medical history.  Visitors’ lack of knowledge about medical history complicates SEI’s ability to deliver its message.  

What are the implications of the findings?

Museum researchers have repeatedly demonstrated that visitors primarily go to history museums to experience “real stuff” firsthand and to find personal relevance in exhibition content; visitors to Ellis Island are no exception.  RK&A recommended that SEI focus most of its resources on accentuating the authenticity of the site through opportunities to experience the buildings and real-life stories of patients, medical staff, and behind-the-scenes workers.  Furthermore, RK&A suggested providing contextual information—geography, history timelines, comparisons of medical care in urban and rural areas during the same time period—as an introduction to the restored hospital and medical facilities to help visitors understand the historical significance of Ellis Island’s medical facilities. 

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