Statue of Liberty Museum

Edification value  3/5
Entertainment value  4/5
Should you go?  4/5
Time spent 123 minutes (not counting time going through security, waiting for the ferry, or on the ferry)
Best thing I saw or learned I’d never given much thought to the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal. So the story of its design — and the near failure of the effort to raise the money to build it — fascinated me. Yes, it’s like choosing frame over the painting, but still.
Statue of Liberty, New York HarborThink how different she’d look if they’d gone with a stepped, Aztec-looking pyramid as her base.  Or something Egyptian revival.

Note: This is my entry about the original Statue of Liberty Museum, dating from May of 2018. Please see my updated review of the new museum on Liberty Island, here.

There aren’t all that many museums built to honor a single work of art. Right? I assert that and now suddenly I’m unsure of myself. In New York, there’s Walter de Maria’s Earth Room. And I think of the Hall of Fame for Great Americans as a single, unified whole, even though many busts of great men (and a few women) comprise it. And the Statue of Liberty Museum makes three.

Statue of Liberty, New York Harbor
Lady Liberty

The Statue of Liberty Museum occupies a substantial space in Liberty’s pedestal. It tells the story of the genesis, engineering, construction, and gifting of the statue, as well as her absolutely iconic role as a symbol of freedom, democracy, New York, and the United States. Among other treasures, it includes the statue’s original torch, glass and lit from inside.

Statue of Liberty, New York Harbor

However, the museum is, I’d say, just adequate. Windowless, somewhat cramped, and almost certainly not equal to the crowds that visit Liberty and Ellis Islands during peak tourist season. I got there on one of the first ferries of the day, which I highly recommend. It’s probably not so fun to visit at midday.

Statue of Liberty, New York Harbor
Statue of Liberty Museum, interior

The National Park Service is in the process of building a glassy, grassy, glossy, larger, and ultramodern Statue of Liberty Museum on the island (due to open sometime next year). That’s definitely a good idea and not beforetime.

Liberty Island, New York Harbor
Future Statue of Liberty Museum

But there’s something special about seeing the statue’s story told in her late 19th century foundation.  I’m not sure the glassy, glossy, modern, green museum will resonate the same way.  So I hope they continue to use the space for something, even if I’m not sure what.

There’s a comprehensive self-guided audio tour available.  I highly recommend it. It covers the island in general and the museum’s displays specifically. It’s well done, entertaining and informative.

Some Things You’ll See and One You Won’t

I feel like everyone knows the story of the Statue of Liberty. Gift from France, colossal, New York Harbor. Lifting her lamp beside the golden door. Yadda yadda yadda.

So why bother with the overcrowded, only adequate museum?

Well, for one thing,  you can get up close and personal with a life-sized replica of Liberty’s face and her foot, and view one of the original plaster forms of an ear. It drives home the size of the statue (46 meters, or 151 feet, 1 inch from torch to toe) and how much detail exists that’s simply invisible from the ground or sea.

Statue of Liberty, New York Harbor
Eye to Eye With Liberty

The museum tells the Statue’s story in terms of five instrumental people, also immortalized in modern statues on Liberty Island:

  • Edouard de Laboulaye:  who dreamed her
  • Auguste Bartholdi:  who designed her
  • Gustav Eiffel:  who engineered her
  • Joseph Pulitzer: who gave her a place to stand
  • Emma Lazarus: who gave her her soul
Liberty Island, New York Harbor
The Heroes of Liberty

The museum speaks not only to the design and building of the Statue, but also to the painstaking centennial restoration as well, which saw much of the original ironwork replaced, ensuring Liberty stays strong for at least another century.

Statue of Liberty, New York Harbor
On these modest, twisty rods are hung the gown of Liberty

And the museum speaks to Liberty as an icon as well, in popular culture, government propaganda, and commercial advertising.  Particuarly timely given this year’s centennial is the classic, scary New York Harbor image from the Liberty Bonds campaign of World War I.

Statue of Liberty, New York Harbor

Rather than write further on what’s in the museum, I’ll comment on the one thing that’s notably absent from it. I assert that the single most iconic representation of the Statue of Liberty comes at the end of the original, 1968 Planet of the Apes. Which is sort of a spoiler for that movie, I guess. Sorry?

Anyway, no Planet of the Apes at the Statue of Liberty Museum. It’s a strange oversight.

Harbor Defenses and the Power of Allegory

The Statue of Liberty Museum will also offers a fine explanation of Liberty, née Bedloe’s, Island and historic Fort Wood as one of the extant early 19th century defenses of New York Harbor.  

Statue of Liberty, New York Harbor
Fort Wood, Harbor, Ferry

Other harbor defenses include such places as Castle Clinton, where visitors purchase tickets for the Liberty/Ellis Ferry, Fort Wadsworth, and Fort Hamilton — which houses the Harbor Defense Museum.  For the full list, see my review of Fort Totten in Queens.

While never tested in war, their existence had a deterrent effect, prompting the British to blockade but not attack New York during the War of 1812.  Fort Wood’s distinctive star shape forms the base out of which the classical pedestal (by architect Richard Morris Hunt, who also designed the facade of the Met) rises.

I wonder how many visitors to Liberty Island reflect on how appropriate it is that the Statue of Liberty rises from a base in a fortress. We don’t live in terribly allegorical times. Alas, this era rewards bluntness more than allusion, and literalness rather than metaphor. Still, freedom doesn’t come for free, and we all have to defend Liberty lest we lose her.

One other allegorical note.  I think my favorite thing about the Statue of Liberty isn’t actually on Liberty Island. On a hill in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, Charles Higgins commissioned a statue of Minerva, a Goddess of Wisdom, arm outstretched in salute to her sister goddess in the harbor.  Wisdom saluting Liberty.

Should You Visit the Statue of Liberty Museum?

Statue of Liberty, New York Harbor
Plaque overdue for an update

Statue of Liberty, New York HarborYou don’t have to go to the museum at the Statue of Liberty. You could go to Liberty Island and just circumambulate the Statue and swing by the gift shop.  The audio guide would offer pretty much the same information as you get in the museum.  But you would miss the views, exterior and interior.

Statue of Liberty, New York Harbor
The Infrastructure of Liberty

If you’re interested in engineering, Franco-American relations in the 19th century, acts of chutzpah (which the Statue Museum helpfully defines as “having New York-sized ambition”), public art, or immigration, you will enjoy the museum. If you like symbology you’ll also enjoy the museum, which talks extensively about the various symbols associated with the Roman goddess Liberta as well as Masonic symbolism that Bartholdi experimented with on his way to the final statue.

The Statue of Liberty is an absolutely essential, unique, and iconic work of public art.  She stands for some of the best aspirations of New York and the United States. Just look at the best gauge of importance and meaning in the contemporary world. There’s no emoji for the Public Library lions or the Met’s hippo mascot. But 🗽.

At the end of the day the Statue of Liberty upstages her attendant museum. Which is as it should be. The museum does a fine job telling the story it sets out to tell, and it’s a deeply interesting one at that. Moreover, Liberty is a twofer with Ellis Island, home of one of New York City’s very best museums. And if you’re going to Ellis or visiting Liberty Island, why not spend some time at the Statue of Liberty Museum, too?

For Reference:

Address  Liberty Island, New York Harbor
Cost  General Admission:  Ferry fare plus pedestal museum entry $18.50 (includes both Liberty and Ellis Islands)
Other Relevant Links
  • Green-Wood Cemetery blog post on its Minerva.