Statue of Liberty museum set to open amid immigration debate

A worker puts finishing touches on the ceiling in a room showing a movie during a press preview at the new Statue of Liberty Museum on May 13, 2019.

The Statue of Liberty, which has welcomed generations of immigrants to US shores, is getting a new museum at a time when immigration is an explosive topic.

The $100 million Statue of Liberty Museum, which is located near the base of "Lady Liberty" in New York harbor, opens on Thursday.

Construction of the 26,000-square-foot (2,400-square-meter) glass-walled structure fringed with copper began in October 2016.

From the rooftop of the new building, visitors have a sweeping view of the harbor, like "on the prow of a ship," said project designer Cameron Ringness.

"You get to climb up and you have these amazing views and a new perspective of the statue and the harbor," Ringness said.

The Statue of Liberty is one of the most visited tourist attractions in the United States, greeting some 4.5 million people a year from around the world.

Entry to the museum is included in the price of the ticket for the ferry that takes visitors to Liberty Island from Manhattan.

The centerpiece of the museum is Lady Liberty's imposing original torch, which was replaced with a new one in 1986.

Exhibits and videos trace the history of the iconic monument designed by French sculptor Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi and given as a gift to the United States to mark the 100th anniversary of US independence in 1876.

Multimedia presentations allow visitors to explore the values associated with the statue.

"It stands for different things for different people," said Stephen Briganti, president and CEO of the foundation which runs the new museum and the one devoted to immigration on nearby Ellis Island.

"But it still stands for good things: democracy, freedom, liberty, inclusion," Briganti said. "It stands for all those things and so many more."

- 'Good moment' -

The opening of the museum comes amid a crackdown on illegal immigration by President Donald Trump, who has also slashed the numbers of refugees accepted by the United States.

"It's a good moment for this museum to open, to talk about immigration, to talk about freedom, to talk about the respect between countries," said Edwin Schlossberg, president and principal designer of ESA Design, which built the exhibitions.

"Sometimes one people's liberty is another person's problem," Schlossberg said.

"We wanted to convey this amazing concept of liberty but also convey the idea that it belongs to each of us -- and that we have to understand that everyone is seeing it slightly differently."

"The balance shifts between the voices of rationality and the voices of irrationality. We are going through an irrational period," he added.

The Statue of Liberty itself has become a political football in the immigration debate.

When Trump shut down the government in December and January after Democratic lawmakers refused to provide funding for his US-Mexico border wall, New York state -- whose governor is a Democrat -- paid federal employees to keep the statue open.

Briganti said Trump had been invited to the museum opening but it "wasn't possible for him to come."

The Trump administration will instead be represented by Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, who runs the National Park Service, which supervises Liberty Island and Ellis Island.

Also expected at the ceremony is New York's Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio, who is considering a run for his party's presidential nomination in 2020 to challenge Trump.

A gala is to be held Wednesday, on the eve of the opening, for museum donors.

Among the expected guests are talk show host Oprah Winfrey, former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and Chelsea Clinton, the daughter of Bill and Hillary Clinton.