The new Statue of Liberty Museum opens on Liberty Island today, a $100 million development funded by investments from A-list names including Diane von Furstenberg, Ralph Lauren and Google’s Sergey Brin.
A gift of friendship from the people of France to the citizens of the United States in 1886, following the abolition of slavery, the Statue of Liberty has become an international symbol of freedom, democracy and human rights. Set on what was once called Bedloe’s Island – now Liberty Island – at the entrance to New York harbour, all ships sailing into the city for more than 130 years have had to pass by her.
That 12-acre island that hosts Bartholdi’s neoclassical copper sculpture is now visited by 4.5 million tourists each year, but post-9/11 security measures mean that only a tiny fraction can gain entry to Lady Liberty herself – just 13 visitors are permitted inside the statue every 20 minutes.
What does it look like?
The new, slick, glass-and-granite museum has been conceived and designed to provide a satisfying encounter for all those who don’t get the chance to climb up to that enormous crown.
The state-of-the-art museum is divided into three sections: the "immersive gallery", three theatres showing films that bring to life the story of the statue, and include drone footage filmed inside and around the monument, with views of what Liberty herself surveys; the "inspiration gallery", which tells the story of her conception, ambitious design and construction in Bartholdi’s Paris studio; and the "engagement gallery", an interactive area with audio and digital exhibits, where visitors engage with artefacts rather than merely observe them.
"We wanted the museum not just to be reverent and historical, but to interrogate what the meaning of liberty is," explains Emily Webster, head of media architecture at EDI Design, the firm that designed the space and its exhibits. "What liberty means to one person isn’t necessarily what liberty means to the next person - and we wanted the museum to be a place where that dialogue can really happen."
To that end, alongside original audio stories from immigrants, describing how it felt to see the statue for the first time, there are touchscreen booths where today’s visitors can select the images and ideas that represent liberty to them, as well as take their own picture. A giant photo wall will collate and display the selected images every day. "It will be a litmus test of the issues that people are thinking and talking about on that day," says Webster.
The enormous original torch from the statue, which was replaced in 1984, after almost a hundred years of visitors attempting to light it with real fires from within, is one of the few artefacts that isn’t for touching.
What does it mean?
Visitor participation is the buzzword for all new museum designs; today we "experience" a museum rather than just visit it. Many new institutions, including Washington DC’s National Museum of African American History and Culture are using interactive exhibits to provoke discussion about historical events, ideas and movements.
New York’s Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side asks visitors to participate, too, in skits with actors imagining the immigrant experience. Combined with a visit there, and to Ellis Island (the latter is included in the ticket price for the Statue of Liberty Museum), the new museum offers an impressively in-depth examination of ideas and issues surrounding immigration at a time when the topic has never been more pertinent.
But the museum is also designed to be more than simply an educational experience. The building’s wide granite staircase and roof, planted with meadow grasses, have been created to offer the perfect picnic spots, facing across the island to the statue, or across the Hudson River to Manhattan (two cafes on the island serve sandwiches, burgers, and sushi to take away, but for a better selection, pack a picnic to bring with you).
Access to the Statue of Liberty museum is free with the purchase of a ferry ticket to Liberty and Ellis Islands. Adults: $18 (£13.50), Children 4-12: $9 (£7), under 4s free, statuecruises.com