on November 12, 2010
It was the poet Emma Lazarus that created the legend. Her poem The New Colossus mythologised the new statue that had been erected in New York harbour, gave it a symbolism greater than the one originally intended. In her words this personification of liberty now became ‘Mother of Exiles’, her ‘beacon-hand glow[ing] world-wide welcome’ to those who braved the arduous voyage across the storm-battered Atlantic from Europe in search of a better life – the poor, the desperate, the destitute, those that possessed naught but a steerage-class ticket and a hope of a brighter future. The sky-thrust torch was the symbol of that brighter future. The poem continued:Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!This had never been the intention. Symbolism was intended, but not symbolism of that nature. The idea that became the Statue of Liberty was first conceived at a dinner-party in Versailles, France. There Édouard René de Laboulaye first proposed a grand symbol to not only celebrate the centenary of the United States’ independence but also commemorate the ties of friendship between the US and France. The sculptor Frédéric Bartholdi took up the baton, criss-crossing the States to drum up support in both nations while refining his design. Upon firsting arrival in America, in New York, he sailed past Bedloe’s Island and decided that this would be the ideal place for a grand statue commemorating the ideals of republican liberty. This grand amalgam of the classical goddess Libertas and the American people’s self-conception of themselves as Columbia would be a stately Lady Liberty however, Liberty Enlightening The World as its original name had it, one that would inspire through her example; she would not decidedly not be a revolutionary rabble-rousing strumpet like the French Marianne depicted in Delacroix’s famous Liberty Leading The People. The cheer-leaders for the project on both sides were men of status, power and prestige; they had no truck with revolution. They favoured a liberty that came through noble enlightenment, not one that must be violently lead. This was reflected in the design of the statue. While it strode forward, shackles left in its wake, the elegant stole and the impassive facial expression (modeled on Bartholdi’s mother) gave an impression of serenity.Pierre Eiffel was brought on board to transform the design into reality. He decided to build a great copper armature – in effect the exterior of the statue was a thin mould, held in place by a criss-crossing network of struts connected to a load-bearing central framework. This allowed the statue to expand and contract, sway and flex, with the elements. This was constructed in Paris and then shipped across to New York in pieces; in return Ameican supporters had erected the grand pedestal upon which it was to stand. The statue was finally unveiled in 1886 by President Grover Cleveland in a grand ceremony. No American women were invited to the island for the event (only two women attended, both French). Emma Lazarus’s poem remained unread.It was the voice of the poor that mythologised the statue. While the French statue was funded by the wealthy elite, the American pedestal was funded by a stream of small donations – 80% of all donations were of less than a dollar. And as the number of immigrants to America swelled the first thing they would see from their crowded ships would be the torch of Lady Liberty appearing over the horizon. She symbolised in their eyes not an example or an exhortation but rather a welcome. She was the first figure they saw in their new homeland, greeting them with a mother’s embrace. Rather than a symbol of the ties between America and France she became a symbol of American freedom, opportunity and hospitality as opposed to the petty despotisms of the entrenched European elites. America was different - something Lazarus had acknowledged when she declared that this ‘new Colossus’ was Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame, With conquering limbs astride from land to land. She threw the gauntlet down to Europe with a rebuking cry of "Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" Seventeen years after the Statue’s dedication a plaque was installed bearing the text of the Lazarus poem. This can still be seen in the museum inside the statue. This museum explores not only the design and construction of the statue but also its symbolic importance, with examples of how it has been used to stir up patriotism, bind the nation together, and symbolise an ideal.Tickets for visiting Liberty Island are obtained from the Statue Cruises ticket booth at Castle Clinton in Battery Park. For $12 each Rebecca and I bought a ticket that covered access to the island and to the nearby Ellis Island as well as the boat ride across. We found both destinations equally fascinating, so I would advise any visitors to make an early start as we easily spent an entire day here. Unfortunately my 2007 edition travel guide was out of date; it said that the ticket office opened at 9am daily. Incorrect. We got there at 9 to discover the ticket office had been open for some time. In fact all the tickets allowing access to the monument (the museum inside its base and the climb up to the top of the statue’s pedestal) had already been sold out, meaning that with our ticket we were authorised to visit the island only. As such I would recommend booking ahead via the Statue Cruises website. By doing this you can also reserve a visit to the crown of the Statue itself; these are very limited in number, go on sale 6 months in advance, and cost an extra $3. Even if your ticket is prominently marked ‘NO MONUMENT ACCESS’ a visit to Liberty island is still well-worthwhile. The ferry ride across the harbour is itself a treat (though you have to go through a lengthy and thorough airport-style security check), and you get a new perspective on the Statue by visiting her home. You also get a new perspective on New York by getting some gorgeous views of Manhattan’s southern tip. There are information panels dotted about the island, and visitors can hire audioguides. Best of all though are the free half-hour guided tours lead by a park ranger. This was my first experience of the American National Park Service and their rangers outside of Yogi Bear cartoons, and it was enough to entrance me and make me want to be a park ranger when I grow up! Our guide escorted us around the island, explaining the history of the statue (in easier and clearer terms than I managed above) and giving his own personal responses to Lady Liberty and what she symbolised to him as an American. He was both informative and entertaining. Best of all, he proved to be very helpful. After the conclusion of the tour I approached him with our tickets (which, as I mentioned, stated quite clearly that we would not be able to access the monument) and queried whether we were genuinely forbidden from entering the statue’s base. In reply he took a pen and scrawled ‘OK for 2’ on the ticket – and then directed us towards the queue for access. Fantastic! I’m not one to encourage people to bend the rules, but should you be unable to get a monument access ticket I would now strongly suggest that you query one of the park rangers about it.Inside the monument we joined another ranger-lead tour (you can visit under your own steam but we had enjoyed the tour outside so much we certainly felt that it was worthwhile taking another inside). This showed us the original torch (much cannibalised in an attempt to make it glow better) before leading on to a display on the design and construction of the statue, and then on to its symbolism. From there a flight of stairs lead up to the balcony wrapping around the top of the stonework pedestal; the statue’s great green toes protruded over the edge just above us.My advice for a successful visit would therefore be to book on line in advance, arrive as early in the morning as possible to allow for a full day, to take advantage of the free ranger-led tours, and bring food and drink as we certainly found our day eaten up by the two islands in the harbour (you can buy food and drink out here though obviously this comes at a price - $9.47 for a bacon cheeseburger in my case).I thoroughly enjoyed my trip out to see what is most probably the most famous statue in the world. Almost 125 years after her construction Liberty still has the power to awe, to inspire, and – of course – to enlighten the world.
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