Lady Liberty is ready to reveal the biggest upgrade to her island home since she first raised her torch in 1886.More than two years after breaking ground, and funded by a $100 million public campaign, the new Statue of Liberty Museum opens Thursday. The 26,000-square-foot museum, loaded with historic relics and interactive exhibits, rises uphill from the central pedestrian mall on Liberty Island, which receives some 4.5 million visitors annually. Built on the New Jersey-facing side of the island, terraced steps, made of the same Stony Creek granite used to build the statue base, lead to a 14,000-square-foot green roof, seeded with native grasses. From there, visitors can enjoy panoramic views of the Upper Bay between New York and New Jersey and, of course, Lady Liberty herself. “The museum was designed to blend into the historic landscape of the island, so it looks like it just kind-of emerges out of the landscape,” Public Affairs Officer Jerry Willis said. “It’s a really special place.”The museum is divided into three sections: a walk-through multimedia presentation in the Immersive Theatre; the Engagement Gallery, where traditional and interactive visits expand on the statue’s construction and enduring place in our culture; and the Inspiration Gallery, where the Lady Liberty’s original torch centres a glass-enclosed space offering breathtaking views of Lady Liberty and the New York skyline. The motivation to build the museum dates back to a 2009 safety assessment that mandated limiting the number of people who could enter the statue to a maximum of about 4,000 people a day. That access included a smaller museum formerly located in the statue’s base. “That meant about 80 percent of our visitors could not get the full experience, the full story of Lady Liberty,” Willis said. Interactive multimedia displays in the Engagement Gallery combine with statue-construction replicas and other exhibits to suggest visitors have entered the workshop of the statue’s designer, French sculptor Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi. From there, they can follow the step-by-step process of taking Lady Liberty from a plaster model to copper sheets pounded onto molds. Further exploration of the Engagement Gallery leads to more exhibits that illustrate the role of the statue in pop culture, and as a symbol of freedom and opportunity for immigrants around the world.The Popular Culture exhibit, for example, features more than 100 archival assets, showcases the statue’s likeness in art, advertising, activism, entertainment and even sports. The tiny island location, frequently visited by thousands of tourists, required the builders of this monumental project to take some extraordinary measures to complete their task.“It’s not the biggest thing we’ve built, but it’s the most challenging,” said Doug Phelps, president of the Boonton, New Jersey-based Phelps Construction Group. “We are on a small island in New York Harbor. There’s no direct access. We actually built our own temporary pier and did all our barging out of Jersey City to get everything here.”Phelps, whose company had previously completed major projects on nearby Ellis Island, worked with the architects to alter the design so more of the museum’s concrete structure could be precast off-site.
Daily access to the statue is still limited, but the new, larger museum will be open to all. Admission comes free with the ferry tickets everyone needs to get there from Liberty State Park in New Jersey or Battery Park in New York.
Stephen Briganti, president and CEO of the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, said the nonprofit organization met its $100 million goal in part through major sponsors, the largest single donation of $5 million coming from Liberty Mutual Insurance.
“But we also had a specific goal about grassroots donors, by which I mean $10,000 and under,” Briganti said. “Most of them came in at an average of $35. There were 40,000 of them.”
If the funding goal had not been met, “We wouldn’t be here,” Briganti said. “The project would have stalled. We have raised about $1 billion over the years, and have never taken any public money.”
Briganti, architect Nicholas Garrison of FX Collaborative, project designer Edwin Schlossberg of ESI Design and other project principals conducted a press tour last week while workers completed final touches to the interior of the museum.
Visitors are encourage to begin in the Immersive Theatre, where a dramatic, panoramic film experience is delivered on three curved video screens, with stereo sound pumped from the floor and ceiling. Narrated by Diane Sawyer, the 10-minute film blends historic still images with cutting-edge animation to make it appear boats are sailing through moving water in New York Harbor.
“It gives a quick history of how it came to be, how the statue was constructed, and then it ends with this incredible footage of the statue at night, the statue at day, just super-inspiring,” Willis said. “The staff got the tour last week, and some of them were a little blown away.”
Willis also is excited to see Lady Liberty’s original torch placed where all visitors can admire it up close in the Inspiration Gallery.
Damaged by leaking water, the old torch was removed and replaced during the statue’s $350 million major renovation in the 1980s. That campaign, too, was funded by the public after President Ronald Reagan authorized the Statue of Liberty–Ellis Island Centennial Commission in 1982.
The torch is the centre-piece of the Inspiration Gallery, where another popular attraction from the old museum is mounted on a nearby wall.
“We have a full-scale replica of the statue’s face that was in the pedestal, and it’s a fan favorite,” Willis said.
Mounted next to the copper-clad replica is a sign inviting visitors to “Please feel free to touch the face.”
“Kids, especially, love to nestle their heads into the nostrils,” Willis said. “That’s a favorite picture. But it really gives you a sense of how large it is.”
The replica, he points out, also is made of the same thickness of copper on the statue itself: “About two pennies put together.”