NEW YORK -- As the ferry from Manhattan sidles up to the dock at Ellis Island, the imposing arches and grand towers of the main building make it almost impossible for visitors not to feel like they are among the huddled masses who passed through here a century ago on their way to a new life in America.
But now, the National Park Service's Ellis Island museum and other institutions across the country want to do more than re-create the immigrant experience of the past. They hope to connect that history to the controversies that roil around the subject of immigration today.
Officials from 14 museums met at Ellis Island this month to launch the Immigration Sites of Conscience Network with the goal of raising the level of public debate about the topic.
Given the often acrimonious tone of that debate, museum leaders in the network say it's worth remembering that the treatment of newcomers to the U.S. has been a thorny issue since the birth of the republic.
"You can't help feeling what people felt when they came through here," said Cynthia Garrett, superintendent of Ellis Island and the nearby Statue of Liberty. "And what we hope to do is to use that feeling as a way to encourage a less polarizing conversation about immigration."
Garrett said one way the nation's premier museum dedicated to immigration will do that is by redesigning its tours to be less like a lecture and more like a conversation, engaging visitors in discussions about their own families' early experiences in America.
Among the institutions in the network are Los Angeles' Japanese American National Museum, where aging docents recount their experiences in the internment camps for Japanese Americans during World War II; Angel Island State Park in San Francisco Bay, where Asians and other Pacific Rim immigrants were processed in the West Coast equivalent of Ellis Island; and the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Mich., dedicated to documenting the experiences of one of the more recent groups of immigrants.
"Each of our institutions brings its own story about how this country has dealt with the long history of immigration," said Liz Sevcenko, director of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, a consortium of museums around the world, of which the U.S. immigration network is a subdivision. "We know that museums have a tremendous opportunity to educate people."
The museums in the Immigration Sites of Conscience Network realize that they have to walk a fine line between presenting information and advocating for specific policies.
"We don't want to be partisan," said Charles Daas, director of the Cambodian American Heritage Museum in Chicago. "We don't want to be political. But we can inform our visitors so they can be aware that these issues are out there."