Beside the Golden Door

The new Statue of Liberty Museum is a quiet paean to America’s embrace of immigrants—but what is there to celebrate?

Statue of Liberty Museum pavilion, with the statue and the New York skyline in the background.
Exterior of the new Statue of Liberty Museum. David Sundberg/Esto

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.

Inside, a curving, three-part theater treats you to a series of movies (narrated by Diane Sawyer) that will dazzle you, inform you, and leave you a little choked up about the statue’s history and significance. Beyond the theater sits a small section of exhibits documenting the statue’s construction and arrival, where it was greeted with what must have been America’s largest crowdfunding campaign, to raise the money for its pedestal. (How this modest building and the adjoining landscape cost $100 million and required its own 11th-hour crowdfunding campaign is something of a mystery.)

At the north end (below the deck), the space opens to a great room that houses Lady Liberty’s original torch, replaced in 1986. Up close, this object from the workshop of Frédéric Bartholdi looks fragile, homemade, almost medieval, an uneven grid of glass and copper rising into the familiar shape of the flame holding against the wind. Hidden for decades in the vault of the pedestal, the old torch finally has a worthy space beneath a wall of windows, with the skyline of lower Manhattan to its left and the statue visible to its right.

Inside the museum, visitors look at the original torch.
The original torch by Frédéric Bartholdi. David Sundberg/Esto

The newer torch is a smooth golden teardrop, but up close, the rest of the statue evinces the same precarity as the discarded lantern’s. Its skin is just a few pennies thick, and you can hear the rain from inside like on a tin roof. On hot summer days, it pops and clinks as the metal expands in the mornings and contracts in the evenings. The symbolism has always been greater than the statue itself.

The new museum was built by the Statue of Liberty–Ellis Island Foundation, the nonprofit that helps take care of the site, which is run by the National Park Service.* You will not find the Der Spiegel cover of Donald Trump holding Lady Liberty’s severed head aloft like Perseus slaying Medusa among the exhibits, but I found it hard not to think about that and other recent invocations of the monument. At an extremely apolitical press tour, I asked Edwin Schlossberg, the president and principal designer at ESI Design, if the Trump administration’s travel ban influenced his exegesis of the statue. “It would be hard to say no,” he said.

The exhibits walk you from Bartholdi’s workshop to the statue’s arrival to its significance in American pop culture, from a wartime icon to a consumer-products doodad to a symbol of immigration. They culminate in “Becoming Liberty,” a set of interactive kiosks where visitors can create their own Instagram-ready collage of what liberty means to them.

Still, the touch is light. Not until I got back did I happen on a statistic that made me think twice about the visit and its appeal to America’s better self: In fiscal year 2018, the United States admitted just 62 Syrian refugees. It’s a shameful number. Maybe I had been warned. It was right there in a note I took from the museum’s 10-minute video, which some 20,000 people will come to see every day: “The Statue of Liberty is at once an emblem of America’s highest ideals and the irony of our history.” Sometimes more one than the other.

Correction, May 15, 2019: This piece originally misidentified the nonprofit that helps take care of the site. It is the Statue of Liberty–Ellis Island Foundation, not the Statue of Liberty Foundation.