Famous as a symbol of freedom and justice, the Statue of Liberty could just as easily be a testament to audacity and perseverance. It took 20 years for the project to come to fruition – an emotional rollercoaster of funding issues, construction delays and engineering challenges.
French sculptor Frederic Bartholdi deserves much of the credit. Not only did he design the 46-metre-high sculpture (the world's tallest when it was unveiled in October 1886), but he also wooed benefactors on both sides of the Atlantic. Officially a gift from France to commemorate the centenary of America's independence, the statue's construction was paid for by the French people. Fundraising efforts included souvenirs, lotteries, balls and workshop tours, which together raised more than 600,000 francs. Hard to imagine that happening today.
America still had to pay for the pedestal and this was almost the project's undoing. After years of lacklustre support, it was only thanks to a fundraising drive by Joseph Pulitzer, the publisher of the New York World newspaper, that the remaining $US100,000 was raised. He pledged to print the name of every donor in the paper, prompting a flood of donations, many from those that could least afford it – 80 per cent were in increments of less than a dollar.
If Bartholdi's nerve hadn't been tested enough already, the steamer that brought the disassembled statue over from France almost capsized in rough seas. It took 16 months to complete the pedestal and reconstruct the statue on what is now known as Liberty Island but, finally, on October 28, 1886, New York gained what is arguably the world's most recognisable sculpture.
Until earlier this year, this epic tale had been recounted somewhat underwhelmingly by a small museum on the first floor of the statue's pedestal. However, in May, a new, sleek, purpose-built space opened on the opposite side of the island, which is free and accessible to all.
Containing more than 150 artefacts, it does a grand job of explaining Bartholdi's vision, his ground-breaking collaboration with Gustave Eiffel (who designed the interior support structure) and the logistical challenges of such an ambitious and – at times – controversial project.
Highlights include a rousing 10-minute film narrated by American news anchor Diane Sawyer; an immersive reconstruction of Bartholdi's workshop; and the sculpture's original torch, which was replaced in 1986. There are interactive elements too, including kiosks that encourage visitors to reflect on the concept of liberty. Combined with self-portrait photos, these answers are incorporated into an impressive moving collage displayed on a large LED screen.
Refreshingly, there's a noticeable lack of the chest-thumping US patriotism one might expect somewhere like this. The museum acknowledges that many people still don't enjoy the basic human rights of freedom and equality – and that while for some the statue is a symbol of hope and encouragement, for others it's a reminder of intolerance and injustice.
All that being said, Lady Liberty must have been a spirit-soaring vision for the 18 million immigrants who arrived in New York between 1886 and 1924. One such newcomer was Eleanor Lenhart, who was only seven years old when she sailed from England in 1921. "She was a beautiful sight after a miserable crossing," she recalls in a letter displayed in the museum. "She held such promise for us all with her arm flung high, the torch lighting the way – opening a new world to those who would accept the challenge."
Rob McFarland was a guest of United Airlines, Mr. C Seaport and CityPASS.
United Airlines flies to New York via Los Angeles, Houston and San Francisco. See united.com
Mr. C Seaport is a new 66-room hotel in the South Street Seaport district from the Cipriani family. There is a lobby bar that serves Cipriani's trademark Bellini cocktail, an upscale Italian restaurant and a town car with free rides in a 20-block radius. Rates from $US269. See mrcseaport.com
The museum is free and open every day except Christmas Day and Thanksgiving. Access is via the Statue Cruises ferry from Battery Park, Manhattan or Liberty State Park, New Jersey. Adult ferry tickets start at $US18.50. CityPASS holders can save 43 per cent on admission to Liberty Island plus five more New York attractions. See statueoflibertymuseum.org; statuecruises.com; citypass.com