Visiting Liberty Island—federal land and home to the Statue of Liberty—feels like both a vacation and a trip down memory lane. Drastically quieter than neighboring Manhattan, the destination is seeped in a historical aura that still affects America’s politics.
That’s the narrative explored within the new Statue of Liberty Museum that opened on the island in May, built under the auspices of the Statue of Liberty–Ellis Island Foundation. The nonprofit is entirely responsible for raising the $100 million needed to complete the long-ago-developed concept that includes the construction of the museum and a new security building, as well as the beautification of the island as a whole.
In Donors We Trust
Financial efforts to meet the $100 million goal were twofold. First, the foundation was able to secure a number of large contributions from private donors. The organizers simultaneously enlisted the help of average Americans.
“It was our goal to involve as many people in the American system as possible. We went to them with a crowdfunding campaign and with other cutting-edge technology that engages the visitors,” says Stephen Briganti, president and CEO of the foundation, which counts the likes of Diane von Furstenberg among its members. “From about 40,000 people, we raised another couple of million dollars for the museum.”
Second, the foundation experimented with some creative asks: A $50 donation secured donors an inaugural-year medallion depicting the museum on one side and the statue’s face on the other. The copper medallion’s patina is expected to change in color over time—just like the patina on the statue. Patrons were asked to contribute as little as $18.86, a “figure pulled out of history,” as 1886 was the year the statue was officially gifted by France to the United States.
The decision to avoid asking the federal government for financial assistance was one rooted in history. Although the statue was an offering from the French, Lady Liberty’s pedestal was paid for by American citizens, who also footed the bill for the restoration project that was brought forward in the 1980s. “So the work that we’ve done at both Liberty and Ellis [islands] is completely paid for by private sources,” Briganti reiterates. “It approximates somewhere in the area of a billion dollars.”
Making another political statement by not making one, the 26,000-square-foot space intimates conversation about eco-friendly architectural pursuits while specifically chasing an LEED gold status. Visitors will notice grass-covered roofs on both the museum and the security building, and special windows were designed to prevent birds from crashing into them. Hurricane Sandy, which delayed construction plans when it hit in 2012, had a great bearing on the overall design. “There was a lot of thought put into the fact that this was being built on an island,” Briganti explains. “Our first floor is 10 feet high; we are at the 50-year floodplain level. Hurricane Sandy taught us [to not] put your systems in the basement.” As water can potentially run in and out of a basement, the information technology systems were placed on the main floor.
A New Arrival
When coming from New York City and stepping off the ferry that takes passengers to Liberty Island and back all day long, visitors gaze up at the Statue of Liberty and should immediately notice the museum, just a few steps away. Although spectacular in execution, the museum engages with nearby Lady Liberty without attempting to overshadow it in splendor and grandeur. “We didn’t want it to compete with the Statue of Liberty,” Briganti says. “As high up as the [museum goes], it is equal to the top of the fort on which the statue’s pedestal rests. It was a challenge for the architect to build what I think looks like a great building but doesn’t compete with the Statue of Liberty.”
The architectural firm chosen to work on the project was FXCollaborative. As for the interior of the museum, the foundation hired ESI Design to come up with the exhibit itself, which includes a film produced by Donna Lawrence Productions and was gifted by ABC Disney, detailing the history of the statue—from the idea’s origin, attributed to French author Édouard René Lefèbvre de Laboulaye, to Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi’s design, and Gustave Eiffel’s building of the metal framework. In what is arguably the most surprisingly efficient feat of engineering, the film is in three parts, each lasting just a few minutes and screened across separate rooms, a decision directly responsible for the virtual lack of lines. In fact, the museum as a whole feels like a rather manageable space to tackle in its entirety in less than an hour.
In addition to the immersive three-room theater, one of the most memorable aspects of the walk through the exhibit comes courtesy of the original torch held by Lady Liberty. On display in bright surroundings, the torch and other artifacts were, until now, part of a National Park Service collection exhibited in the museum that used to be at the base of the statue. Most visitors’ inability to gain access to the structure (entry was limited) contributed to the eventual development of a separate dedicated facility. With 4.5 million visitors disembarking at Liberty Island each year, the foundation hopes that at least 50% to 60% of them will venture into their new building. (Entrance fees are included in the price of the ferry ride.)
Now that the museum is open to the public, what’s next for a nonprofit that’s been dedicated to this particular task since 2012? “We’re going back to Ellis Island!” Briganti exclaims, mentioning the recent restoration of the nearby land. “Ellis Island is a symbol of American immigration, but it’s also a world symbol of people moving from one place to another. So we’re working with a museum designer to think that through.”
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