New Statue of Liberty Museum is Open at Last

Every year, more than four million people travel to New York City’s Liberty Island to visit the Statue of Liberty, a towering symbol of our nation’s fundamental ideal of freedom since its installation in 1886. But the tragic events of September 11, 2001 ushered in security concerns for the city, and restrictions were imposed on how many people were allowed inside the 111-foot statue. So, the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, a private-sector effort established in 1982 to raise funds for the preservation of the Statue of Liberty and the neighboring Ellis Island, devised an alternative for visitors frustrated with the strict security guidelines. And this month, the public was allowed at long last to view its finished concept – an interactive museum on Ellis Island devoted to the history and meaning of our iconic Lady Liberty.

Open to visitors after nearly three years of construction, the Statue of Liberty Museum offers a more multifaceted perspective of the iconic statue. While many museum-goers may already know that the statue was a gift to the United States from France, intending to honor the friendship forged between the nations during the American Revolutionary War, the museum will also delve into the philosophy of its designer, a French sculptor named Frederic Auguste Bartholdi. A fervent abolitionist, Bartholdi originally intended the statue as an emblem of emancipation, and his creation arrived in the U.S. with broken chains and a discarded shackle beneath her feet. They remain there today, though they are difficult to view.

Lady Liberty’s more celebrated status as a beacon of hope to immigrants coming to our shores to start a new life wasn’t established until several years after she was erected. In 1883, as part of a fundraising effort for the statue’s pedestal, poet Emma Lazarus published her seminal poem “The New Colossus.” The poem, which contains the famous passage, “… give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” was later attached to the pedestal in 1903 and quickly established the statue as a symbol of freedom and the American dream to immigrants.

The museum also highlights how the statue’s promise of opportunity did not apply to women or minorities until well into the 20th century. The viewpoints of those shut out of the “universal liberty” symbolized by the statue are prominently displayed throughout the premises, including a quote from the AfricanAmerican owned and operated Cleveland Gazette published in 1886. The excerpt proclaims, “Shove the Bartholdi statue, torch and all, into the ocean until the ‘liberty’ of this country is such as to make it possible for an inoffensive and industrious colored man in the South to earn a respectable living for himself and his family, without being ku-kluxed, perhaps murdered, his daughter and wife outraged, and his property destroyed.”

Alan M. Kraut, a professor at American University and part of the museum’s history advisory committee, noted in an interview with The New York Times that creating an awareness around the complexities of the statue was a goal from the museum’s inception. “[Liberty is] an incomplete message in a lot of ways,” he said. “Liberty was denied to many, many people when the statue was first being conceived.” [See New Statue of Liberty Museum Illuminates a Forgotten History, by Julia Jacobs, The New York Times, 15.May.2019.]

Despite its complicated history, millions of people around the world continue to flock to the Statue of Liberty every year to take in its grand vision of a country where opportunity is unlimited and freedom is enjoyed by everyone. And the Statue of Liberty Museum is embracing that message and acknowledging that the heterogeneity of the 21st century is one of its greatest strengths. As New York City mayor Bill de Blasio proclaimed at the museum’s dedication ceremony, “The Statue of Liberty represents our core values: We embrace diversity, support our neighbors, and believe everyone should have a fair shot at the American dream.” [See After Gala with Oprah and Other Stars, Statue of Liberty Museum Opens, by Gary Stoller, Forbes, 17.May.19.]


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