May 14, 2019
The Statue of Liberty Museum Opens in New York City
The new museum, designed by FXCollaborative with ESI Design, invigorates Liberty Island for its millions of visitors.
Despite its symbolic subject, there is nothing monumental about the new Statue of Liberty Museum. Designed by FXCollaborative with ESI Design, and opening to the public on Thursday, the latest addition to the Statue of Liberty National Monument is less building than park.
This is not an original observation; since the plan to build a standalone museum here was announced in 2016, FXCollaborative has described it as an extension of the landscape. In 1939, Norman T. Newton, a National Park Service (NPS) designer, conceived the park along the lines of a formal French garden, complete with boxwoods and a 75-foot-wide central mall. The plan was updated during a 1980s restoration by Philip Johnson, who replaced the square plaza with a circular one and paved over much of the area. Despite rows of trees, grass, and the surrounding Hudson, the flat 12-acre island can seem like a non-place, unsure whether it’s in New York or New Jersey or somewhere else entirely, and offering little to do but gaze up at Lady Liberty and wander about.
During peak season, the NPS reports some 25,000 daily visitors to the island, and more than four million come each year. Because of the statue’s limited capacity, many never make it inside. A small exhibit had been on view in the statue’s pedestal, but it required a ticket, and for many tourists making the pilgrimage, the experience was strangely alienating. FXCollaborative’s 26,000 square-foot, single-story building seeks to remedy this, giving visitors an intimate and interactive experience even without climbing the statue.
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The new museum introduces a kind of topography to the flatness of the island, backed against a seawall at the northwest edge. Its siting breaks from the formality of the axis, pivoting around Johnson’s circular plaza as a “hinge,” says FXCollaborative’s Nicholas Garrison, the project’s lead architect. The massing is defined by a geological gesture: a plate of park, uplifted, opens a roughly 25-foot-tall exhibition space beneath, while a potamological cascade of rosy granite (Coldspring, the same as that used in the statue’s pedestal) connects the lifted slab back to the ground. The tectonic action is underscored with verticals: The building’s precast concrete slabs are ribbed with verticals, the copper cap on its roof slab has a vertical lap, and the 22-feet-high bird-safe glass curtainwall has a vertical frit. But the overall effect is muted, hewing to the earthbound palette—glass, granite, brass, copper—and height of the nearby NPS administrative buildings.
The most interesting quality of FXCollaborative’s building is that it asks first to be perched on, not entered. The main mall and an existing walkway that hugs the water’s edge—connecting the statue to the museum—are absorbed into the building’s outdoor egress, drawing pedestrians either up the central granite bleachers (Garrison called them “a joyful, irregular thing”) or up a glass elevator to the ADA-accessible roof deck. This terrace comes to a point like a prow, offering an enviable, if modest, vantage with 360-degree views to the statue and the skylines of New York and New Jersey, over the building’s rippling grasses and the waves below.
None of this is to overlook the permanent exhibit inside. The task of unpacking liberty is perhaps too much for a museum of this size, and ESI Design, which led the exhibition planning, has mostly focused on the narrative of the Statue of Liberty herself—how she came to be created by Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi, built with Gustave Eiffel between 1875 and 1884, shipped across the Atlantic, and erected.
Spatially, the single-floor exhibition is structured around the primary challenge, circulation, “pulsing,” as ESI Design’s head of media architecture Emily Webster describes, the crowd through a series of interactive theaters and vignettes. From a purely visual standpoint, the design feels freshest when it responds to FXCollaborative’s theater-box-like interior of matte-black paint over a simple open ceiling, stainless steel track lighting, and polished concrete flooring. In the first two galleries, ESI inserted undulating walls of wooden slats or plaster into the box-like plan, guiding movement; their sequential use of vertical slats, plaster, and copper tone references the stages of Liberty’s construction. Throughout, ESI had the difficult task of designing for a diverse audience of all ages and languages, and has layered a variety of sources and media, including archival materials, reproductions, video (produced with the History Channel), digital displays, and sound.
As a symbol and structure, the Statue of Liberty is complicated, even among monuments. It’s been used in political protests and to prop up political agendas, which the exhibition touches on in the third gallery. It’s synonymous with American identity and, with that, immigration, yet it’s a gift from another country at a time when that country was grappling with its own democratic failures. For a topic as loaded as “liberty,” the exhibition barely takes on difficult subjects, instead passing the mic to visitors, who, at a series of photobooth-like stations, are encouraged to take a selfie and select what the concept means to them. The responses appear in an endlessly updating visual display (participants sign a release for privacy reasons)—what ESI Design hopes will be a literal snapshot, Webster says, of the concept’s meaning at a given moment in history.
But the focus is indisputably an area at the front of the museum, where the facade is all glass. Here, visitors both indoors and out can spend time with the original torch, illuminated by LEDs, in what the designers hope will be an opportunity for reflection. “We wanted to show that there is not one idea of liberty,” says Edwin Schlossberg, president and principal designer of ESI Design. “The idea of liberty is something that we all share, and we have the obligation to try to strive for [it].”
On the April morning when I visited, the green roof’s meadow grasses were sprouts, not yet close to their eventual knee height, and some of the granite was still being installed. As I disembarked from the ferry, jostled by tourists of all ages and speaking all kinds of languages, what I first saw—what everyone around me saw—was a tower of copper-green on the opposite side of the island.
For myriad reasons, we had all crossed water to come here. And if it hadn’t already been obvious, the proximity to water defined this project from the start. Soon after FXCollaborative began design, Superstorm Sandy slammed into the East Coast, ripping the pavers from the symmetrical mall. Today, the museum’s steel structure and utilities are raised on concrete columns to meet FEMA’s 500-year flood requirements, a task that took a full construction year. The NPS, meanwhile, is touting the project, soon to be overrun by grasses, bugs, and birds—it’s right in the middle of a migratory bird path, hence the birdsafe glass—as a shining example of resilient design. The imperative has added an ecological layer to the idea of liberty at a moment of reckoning, not just with our responsibility toward political freedom and opportunity, but to the species and landscapes that America has, for so long, thought it could control.
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• Architect: FXCollaborative
• Experience and Exhibit Design: ESI Design
• Landscaping: Quennell Rothschild & Partners, MPFP
• Clients: Statue of Liberty–Ellis Island Foundation, National Park Service
• Surfaces: Architectural Millwork Management Corp.
• Walls: Drucks, Inc.
• Flooring: AC Flooring
• Ceiling: Can-Am
• Furniture: Design Within Reach, Knoll
• Lighting: Litelab
• Textiles: AC Textiles