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Forgotten Gateway Exhibit Teaches Lessons of the Immigrant Experience in Texas

Anthropology lecturer uses history exhibit to teach empathy and understanding.

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While riding a ferryboat to America’s most famous port of entry, Ellis Island, with a group of high school students, Suzanne Seriff began to wonder about the lesser-known gateways to America.

Her curiosity about Galveston’s largely forgotten history as a major port city was sparked when a student asked, “Why did we have to go all the way to New York to find out about our ancestry? My family came through Galveston.”

“That was when a light bulb flashed and I thought, nobody really knows about Galveston,” said Seriff, a guest curator, project coordinator and senior lecturer of anthropology at The University of Texas at Austin. “That’s why we call it a forgotten gateway. What many people don’t know is that during the late 1800s, it was one of the top ports of entry in the country.”

Just six months after the Sept. 11 attacks, Seriff felt the urgent need to create a venue geared toward fostering tolerance and a sense of empathy for immigrants in the United States.

When she returned to Texas, she submitted a proposal to the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum. Nine years later, the “Forgotten Gateway: Coming to America through Galveston Island” traveling exhibit premiered in the museum’s Albert and Ethel Herzstein Hall of Special Exhibitions.

Created by a team of anthropologists, humanities scholars, historians, educators and designers, the exhibition tells the story of Galveston’s legacy as one of America’s top 10 transoceanic ports of entry from 1845 to 1924 in four rooms with different themes: “Difficult Journeys,” “Immigration as Big Business,” “Our Nation’s Rising Xenophobia” and “The Changing Immigration Laws after World War I.”

Each historical account coincides with contemporary stories told by immigrants and descendants of immigrants who are confronting the same challenges, from forced migration to encountering dangers along the way to conflict upon arrival.

Extending its stories beyond the realm of history, Seriff says the exhibit uses the lessons of prejudices, bigotry and inhumanity to teach empathy and understanding of others.

“Our goal is to increase tolerance about people from all cultures,” she said. “And we want to help our visitors see that current issues we see as problems today relate to many immigration issues throughout our nation’s history.”

The untold stories of Galveston’s legacy as a major thoroughfare for immigrants are revealed through hundreds of pictures, illustrations, videos, oral narratives and more than 140 original documents and artifacts.

Providing an opportunity for discussion, each room features interactive kiosks where visitors are asked to share their own stories or join the conversation about particular issues by leaving answers to specific questions in a comment box.

“Our visitors are an important part of the exhibit,” Seriff said. “We try to create an opportunity for multiple voices at all times to contribute to the story. Not just the authority of my voice, but the authority of multiple perspectives from the past and present.”

Supported by The National Endowment for the Humanities and a host of other donors and organizations, the exhibit aids several community outreach initiatives geared toward engaging underrepresented immigrant communities. The special programs include storytelling sessions, youth theater workshops and discussion groups.

To tell the story of Galveston’s overlooked history to a broader audience, the Texas State Museum will produce a smaller-scale version of the 6,500-square-foot exhibit to transport to immigration centers, schools, libraries and community centers around Texas and the country. The portable exhibit will feature replicas of artifacts, digital media and an array of interactive attractions, allowing visitors to leave comments and share their own experiences.

Slated to leave the Texas State History Museum in October 2009, the exhibit will journey around the nation to other institutions, including Moody Gardens in Galveston and the Ellis Island Immigration Museum.

Admission to the exhibit is $7 for adults, $6 for seniors/military/college students, $4 for children ages 5-18, free for ages 4 and under. The museum is at 1800 N. Congress Ave., at the corner of Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd. in downtown Austin. For more information, call 512-936-8746 or go online to TheStoryofTexas.com.

Take a virtual tour of the exhibit…