Lighting the Way—the Statue of Liberty Museum

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Part of a $100 million renewal effort by The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, the new museum and exhibits were brought to life by a team led by FXCollaborative, ESI Design (New York) and Float4 (Montreal).

“America needs this museum and what it represents now more than ever. Immigration defines us, and New York is the ultimate city of immigrants,” said New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, endorsing the new Statue of Liberty Museum. “The Statue of Liberty represents our core values—we embrace diversity, support our neighbors and believe everyone should have a fair shot to live the American dream.”

Part of a $100 million island-wide renewal effort funded by The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, enlisting support from leading sponsor Liberty Mutual Insurance, followed by a parade of recognizable names like: AmEx, Bezos, Bloomberg, Carnegie, Coca-Cola, Disney, Ferragamo, Geffen, Lauder, Lucas and Tisch. “Every visitor who comes to Liberty Island will have the opportunity…to learn about Lady Liberty’s history and how she still shines as a beacon of hope for all people around the world,” remarked Stephen Briganti, The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation president and CEO, of the museum’s goal.

The 26,000-square-foot building features three gallery spaces, each one meant to educate 4.3 million annual visitors on the history and majesty of the colossal figure in interactive and thought-provoking ways, rousing emotions and ideas about the concept and role of liberty in the world today. The building features a grassy public roof space with stunning views of Lady Liberty herself, lower Manhattan and all of New York Harbor. This, sitting overhead of an impressive 15,000-square-feet of interpretive experiences—replete with 29 interactive touchscreens and 150 artifacts—which begin with an immersive film and culminate with a closeup view of the statue’s original torch. (Replaced in 1986, this torch had been held on high for nearly a century.)

The new museum was designed by architecture firm FXCollaborative, featuring exhibits by ESI Design and Float4, who were essential in the production and integration of the interactive exhibits. “While the Statue of Liberty is one of the most recognizable icons in the world, few people ever get to climb to its crown or get to see Lady Liberty’s face up close,” said Edwin Schlossberg, founder and principal designer of ESI Design. “Our goal for the design of the museum experience is to immerse visitors in not just the grandeur and sweeping history of the Statue, but also in the very idea of liberty itself so that they leave with a deeper understanding of what it means to them and the active role required to uphold it.”

As visitors enter the Welcome Area, they are greeted by two murals—a large-scale image of Liberty’s face and 50 stars of the US flag, as part of the donor experience. Further, five touchscreen donor directory kiosks allow visitors to explore testimonials about various donors’ personal connection to the site, from immigration stories to struggles to attain the ideal the Statue represents in our society.

The first museum exhibit experience is the Immersive Theater, a full 3,000-square-feet space, with 1,576-square-feet of Novawall curved projection screen, separated into three theater nodes each of which include multiple projectors and speakers in the walls and floor to create an encompassing cinematic feeling. Each of the three acts of “Liberty Enlightening the World,” narrated by Diane Sawyer, run just over three minutes for a total watch time of 10 minutes.

The film begins with a scenic view of the New York Harbor in the 19th century before the Statue was erected and progresses through the story of how and why she was built and given to the people of the United States. In the second and third acts, shot with specialized 8K cameras and rigs, visitors are treated to dramatic views of the interior and exterior of Lady Liberty before hearing a discussion of the role of individuals and cultures in defining and advancing liberty. The content for each film segment, as well as the countdown screen, is output by a RealMotion server.

The design teams recognized and planned for the needs of a truly diverse audience, by issuing digital tour guides in 13 languages—including ASL and an Audio Descriptive tour giving detailed dimensions, physical explanations, readings of text panels and overviews of exhibition content. “The interactive exhibits have best-in-class ADA accessibility, with assistive navigational pads that allow differently-abled visitors to use all interactives and achieve a comparable experience to other visitors,” writes Tarley Jordan, director of marketing & communications at ESI. “Our ADA consultants recommended using the Storm Interface Nav-Pad model because it is widely used in everything from ATMs to voting booths and would be familiar to visitors.”

In the Engagement Gallery, five exhibitions (Imagining Liberty, Constructing Liberty, Raising Liberty, Opening Ceremony and Embracing Liberty) address the history of the Statue from concept through construction and the world wars. In “Bartholdi’s Sketches” and “The Statue in Popular Culture” interactives bring archival material—from the National Park Service collection and beyond—to life through gestures and animations that feel natural. The sketches interactive invites visitors into the design process of Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi; to “flip through” the sketchbook, visitors use their fingers to “turn” the page. The Statue in Popular Culture is an interactive library that showcases the Statue’s likeness across advertising, art, entertainment and protest posters. Both utilize two touchscreens enabled by dynamic applications and RealMotion Servers.

Constructing Liberty chronicles the formation of the sculpture, employing reclaimed wooden posts, projection mapping, scale models and even a full-sized replica of the foot that visitors can touch to illustrate the process of building the statue. Raising Liberty and Opening Ceremony explore the history of fundraising for the statue and pedestal in France and the US, as well as the celebration of Liberty’s landing through many assorted mementos and artifacts. The experience is heightened with custom sound design reminiscent of a ticker tape parade. Embracing Liberty brings the historical journey through generations of immigration and the conflicts of WWI and WWII.

Lastly, the Inspiration Gallery brings the 45-minute museum experience to an emotional climax, as visitors are invited to join in conversation by sharing their own perspective on what liberty looks like. At Becoming Liberty, visitors are prompted to share a self-portrait and choose a set of images that express their perspectives on the meaning of liberty through one of 10 two-sided kiosks. These terminals feed individual visitor content in real-time through a RealMotion server and CMS to a panoramic mosaic at the entry to the gallery—alongside that of others in a series of four ever-changing data visualizations (popular images, popularity, global participation and recent participants).

The custom CMS receives updatable content and submissions created from the kiosks. Cloud-based AI is then used to validate and sort through the photos submitted by the participant, and the CMS system shares this content to the Canvas and Kiosks through web API’s. The CMS also manages the creation and distribution of souvenir emails sent to visitors. Privacy protections and user opt-ins were put in place for visitors’ peace of mind.

Visitors are then invited to explore the original torch, 1986 restoration, the Statue’s patina and are able to touch a full-scale model of Liberty’s face before departing. Statue of Liberty National Monument and Ellis Island Superintendent John Piltzecker maintains that the new museum’s iconic artifacts like the original torch, and state-of-the-art exhibitions “will ensure that future generations know, understand and appreciate all that Lady Liberty represents in America and around the world.”

Famous fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg, was so captivated by the Statue when she first arrived in America that she was inspired to lead the fundraising campaign for the new museum, and perhaps saying it best: “Lady Liberty is the symbol of everything America is about: freedom, hope, possibility and resilience.”


Project Name: Statue of Liberty Museum
Client: The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, Inc and National Park Service
Location: New York
Open Date: May 2019
Project Area: 15,000 sq ft
Overall Budget: $100,000,000
Architect: FXCollaborative
Landscape Architect: Quennell Rothschild & Partners (museum landscape architect), MPFP (island landscape architect)
EGD/Exhibition Design: ESI Design
Interactive Experience Design: ESI Design, Float4
Fabrication: Kubik Maltbie Inc
Collaborators: The Walt Disney Company, ABC, Donna Lawrence Productions (immersive film); YAP Studios, Apple (mobile app); George Sexton Associates (lighting design); Diversified (A/V solutions); HISTORY/A+E Networks (exhibit video); Icreon (kiosk/CRM integration); Inclusive Digital LLC, Acoustiguide, Inc., Jensen Hughes (accessibility/ADA); SH Acoustics, Longman Lindsey (acoustics); Jeremy S. Bloom Sound Design (audio/sound design); History Associates, Mary-Angela Hardwick, history advisory committee chaired by Alan Kraut (exhibition research and content); Rambusch, Li/Saltzman Architects (historic preservation/conservation); DeSimone Consulting Engineers, Kohler Ronan Consulting Engineers, Langan Engineering (engineers); Phelps Construction Group (construction management); SBI Consultants, Inc. (project manager); Designer Sign Systems (exterior signage); TM Tech Partners (security/IT); Atelier Ten (sustainability/LEED)
Photography: Keena Photo, David Sundberg/Esto