New Statue of Liberty Museum Honors the Immigrant Experience

It was a monumental task: design a museum beside Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi’s “Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World,” in honor of her enduring legacy — and to accommodate 4.5 million annual visitors.

Its creators felt the weight of every detail before ever breaking ground. The new museum is expected to open in May.

“When we first came on the island, we were moved,” said Nicholas Garrison, Design Partner for the architecture firm FXCollaborative. “We literally saw people on their knees, crying, because of what this place meant, and it kind of sunk into us that this is a really special, sacred place.”

The monument is a gift from the people of France to the United States in 1886. The colossal, copper-plated iron sculpture greeted more than 12 million immigrants arriving on nearby Ellis Island from 1892 to 1954.

Below Liberty, etched on her pedestal of Stony Creek granite, bronze and copper, are the words of poet Emma Lazarus for immigrants past and present: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”

The new museum and garden pavilion incorporate the same major materials as the statue’s pedestal. The granite steps leading to the museum’s rooftop are surrounded by native meadow grasses, a habitat for local and migrating birds. From there, panoramic views extend from Lady Liberty to New York’s lower Manhattan skyline.

“It kind of blends into that narrative and that story. It’s also really, really strong,” Garrison told VOA. “The granite is never going to wear out, and we think that’s a really appropriate choice.”

​Preservation of liberty

Because of its popularity and capacity, only a fifth of Liberty Island visitors are able to enter the statue today. But with the opening of the museum, everyone who visits is invited to experience “the notion of going up onto something,” Garrison says, adding that the building is intended to be intuitively inviting for non-English and English speakers alike.

The museum’s creators hope its design will spark dialogue.

“There are lots of words where you could say, this is the definition of [liberty], but the real definition of it is held in everybody’s heart,” said Edwin Schlossberg, president and principal designer of ESI Design.

In charge of the interior’s physical design, media design and graphics, Schlossberg recently led a group of international journalists through the museum’s three gallery spaces, still under construction.

Upon entering, visitors experience a virtual fly-through “into the statue’s head,” looking out through her eyes at the harbor as it existed in the 1880s, before fast-forwarding — like a “flip-book,” as Schlossberg describes — from then to now.

Museum guests then step inside the studio of French sculptor Bartholdi, exploring the statue’s history, design and role in the world, before a grand finale “Inspiration Gallery,” where visitors add selfies to an ever-growing collage called “Becoming Liberty.”

“We wanted to really convey this idea that it is our ability, all of our ability, to preserve and protect the idea of liberty, and that’s what people should feel as they leave this place,” Schlossberg told VOA.

​An ‘optimistic’ space

In the final gallery space facing the statue, behind 6.7-meter-high glass panels, visitors view up-close the original 1,600-kilo torch that stood atop the statue for nearly a century, before its gilded replacement was installed in 1985.

Garrison, the museum’s architecture designer, calls the overall piece “optimistic.”

“It tries to be forward-looking,” Garrison said. “It tries to be inspirational unto itself as its own object, its own kind of new icon, while being respectful to the buildings that are here.”