The museum, opening Thursday, May 16, 2019 on Liberty Island, reminds visitors of the vague and often dubious ideal of “liberty for all.”
Each year about 4.5 million people shuffle off the ferries that service Liberty Island to see up close the famous torch-wielding Roman goddess towering above them.
But security concerns stemming from the Sept. 11 attacks led the National Park Service to restrict the number of people who could go inside the statue’s massive stone pedestal, and up to the crown. The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation wanted to offer something more for visitors who found the outdoor view less than satisfying: a stand-alone museum on the island that would welcome everyone who wanted to hear the story behind Lady Liberty.
On Thursday, the Statue of Liberty Museum opens on the island, offering details about how French workers constructed their 150-foot-tall gift to America, as well as how the statue became a symbol of freedom across the world.
Recognizing the need to focus on more than just the vague and often dubious ideal of American “liberty,” the museum’s designers highlight the doubts of black Americans and women who saw their personal liberties compromised on a daily basis in the 1880s, when the statue opened. They also spotlight a bit of history that is often forgotten: that the French creators intended the statue as a commemoration of the abolition of slavery in the United States.
Here are four of the museum’s central messages.
A Celebration of Emancipation
Museum visitors will learn that the man who originated the idea for the statue, the legal thinker Édouard René Lefèbvre de Laboulaye, was also a staunch abolitionist who was known in the United States for his Civil War-era pamphlets defending the Union cause.
In an early model of the statue by the French sculptor Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi from 1870, Lady Liberty is depicted holding broken chains in her left hand, a clear reference to emancipation. Bartholdi based the statue on the Roman goddess Libertas, who is usually depicted wearing a Phrygian cap, traditionally worn by freed Roman slaves.
In Bartholdi’s final model, the broken chains in the statue’s hand were replaced with a tablet that represented the rule of law. Bartholdi placed the broken shackle and chains beneath Lady Liberty’s feet, making it nearly impossible for visitors to see at most angles.
“In a way it’s a hidden secret,” said Edwin Schlossberg, who led the design of the museum. “You can’t see them unless you’re in a helicopter.”
A 10-minute documentary shown in the museum includes an aerial shot of the statue, allowing many visitors to see those broken chains for the first time.
A Shift to an Emblem of Immigration
It is far more common to associate the Statue of Liberty with immigration rather than emancipation. But it wasn’t until years after the statue’s dedication that it became an icon for the waves of immigrants seeking a better life in the United States.
The statue opened with much fanfare on Oct. 28, 1886. That was six years before the government opened Ellis Island, the inspection site that more than 12 million immigrants would pass through in the decades to come.
In an effort to raise money for the statue’s pedestal, Emma Lazarus wrote the 1883 poem “The New Colossus,” describing the statue welcoming the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” The poem wasn’t affixed to the pedestal until 1903, after Lazarus’s death.
In the museum, visitors will hear recordings of immigrants remembering the moment they first caught sight of the statue on their way to the United States.
“It’s hard to believe for a while that you’re really going to be in this country, but when you see the Statue of Liberty, you know it’s there,” one voice said. “It’s thrilling.”
For Many, the Statue Was a Broken Promise
The museum doesn’t shy away from the fact that this symbol of “universal liberty” was far from a reality for people of color and women during the late 19th century and for decades afterward.
That point is highlighted by a quote taken from the African-American-owned Cleveland Gazette, which wrote one month after the statue’s opening, “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 family, without being ku-kluxed, perhaps murdered, his daughter and wife outraged, and his property destroyed.” It also quotes a suffragist pointing out the inconsistency of using a female figure as the face of political liberty when women did not yet have the right to vote.
This skepticism toward the statue, which continued into the modern era, was notably missing from the previous experience of visiting the landmark, said Alan M. Kraut, an American University professor who chaired the museum’s history advisory committee. While the museum is intended to celebrate the concept of liberty, Professor Kraut said, it also pokes holes in it.
“It’s an incomplete message in a lot of ways,” he said. “Liberty was denied to many, many people when the statue was first being conceived.”
A Symbol Beyond America
Each ferry pulling up to the island could be a floating United Nations. Of the millions of people traveling to see the Statue of Liberty each year, many are visiting the United States from other countries.
As a result, the museum offers audio tours in 12 different languages. It also infuses its imagery with historical social justice movements throughout the world. The documentary at the beginning of the museum positions photographs of Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela with throngs of supporters beside photographs depicting Women’s Marches in the United States.
In one photo, protesters at a disability rights rally in Germany displayed a model of Lady Liberty in a wheelchair. Another photo shows a plaster version of the statue at the 1989 pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square.
“Half of the people who come here are not Americans,” said Stephen A. Briganti, the president of the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, which funds the museum. “We’re telling the American story for the world.”