The new Statue of Liberty Museum is a quiet paean to America’s embrace of immigrants—but what is there to celebrate?Historians in the News
tags: museums, immigration, Statue of Liberty
We are huddled against the rain on the top deck of the Miss Liberty, the ship near its capacity of 800 souls as it cuts through the waves of Upper New York Bay. When the captain pulls in front of Liberty Island, the boat lists to the starboard side as we rush to see the great green colossus 30 stories above. The masses cry out, in many accents and as one: “Can you take a photo?”
For visitors to Liberty Island, this moment—before you even disembark—has long been as good as it gets. From here, it’s a quick stroll around the tiny outcropping, past the overpriced snacks and tchotchkes, a stroll spent looking up at Lady Liberty’s backside. (She faces Brooklyn.) Between 80 and 85 percent of the island’s 4.5 million annual visitors will not be admitted to the statue’s great granite pedestal, which offers views of the harbor, and very few of those are permitted to enter and ascend the statue itself. This is in part the result of post-9/11 security theater, but mostly because the statue just isn’t big enough for the millions who want to visit it. So they wander the island, yell at the employees of the National Park Service, and like their forebears, pass by Ellis Island before they can land in Manhattan.
Into this void comes the elegant little Statue of Liberty Museum, which opens to the public later this week and provides, at last, a consolation prize for the tourists who land on Liberty Island each year. It is a thoughtful, self-aware place, but one that, opening in the third year of the Donald Trump presidency, feels awkwardly buoyant.
After the existing museum inside Richard Morris Hunt’s pedestal—a windowless, carpeted corridor that would underwhelm in a midtown hotel—anything would have been an improvement. The new museum, designed by the firm FXCollaborative and with exhibits by ESI Design, is a treat even if you don’t know what it has replaced. It is perched on the island’s west end, with a low profile and an inclined, grass-and-granite roof that make it look like a rocky outcropping. “We didn’t want a Bilbao,” said architect Nicholas Garrison, alluding to Frank Gehry’s much-imitated statement museum built for the Guggenheim in northern Spain. “But something that would hold its own as a piece of geology, a lifted landscape.” The stone steps come from the same granite quarry that Hunt used for the pedestal, and the copper cladding is already beginning to oxidize at the corners. The roof terrace, which slopes up to a point like a ship’s prow, gives visitors a chance to climb something.
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