History prof plays role in new Statue of Liberty Museum

As a child, Maria Cristina Garcia’s family left Cuba for the United States to enjoy new freedoms that were lacking there. One of her first road trips as a new American was to see the Statue of Liberty and many of her photos from that trip show the statue in the background.

Last week, Garcia — now the Howard A. Newman Professor of American Studies at Cornell — celebrated with other historians, philanthropists and celebrities, at the opening of the new Statue of Liberty Museum, a museum she helped to plan and create as part of the museum’s History Advisory Committee.

“Who would have guessed then that I would one day contribute to this project?” Garcia said of her involvement. “I don’t think I can fully convey how meaningful it was for me as an immigrant and refugee.”

The museum is dedicated to the concept of liberty and all of the meanings that word holds for people, Garcia said. The advisory committee — chaired by Cornell alum Alan Kraut MA ’71, PhD 75, distinguished professor of history at American University — helped exhibit designers and filmmakers with the museum’s content, which includes a 12-minute film narrated by Diane Sawyer, original models of parts of the Statue of Liberty and exhibits focused on the Statue in popular culture and political protest. The museum also has an interactive gallery where visitors can reflect on what liberty means to them.

“Working on this project has been one of the most rewarding activities of my professional career,” Garcia said, adding that she worked with designers, members of the National Park Service and filmmakers. “Together we discussed (and argued about) the historical content of the museum, and we reviewed the scripts for accuracy but also for inclusion. We felt very deeply that certain facts needed to be told or underscored.  We didn’t always get our way, though.”

The film discusses the history of the Statue and the many ways the statue has inspired people across the country, even around the world, Garcia said.

“When the statue and its pedestal were built on Bedloe’s island in New York harbor, liberty was a reality only for some Americans,” she said. “Women did not have the right to vote (and were even barred from attending the dedication of the statue); Chinese migration was restricted; and African Americans in the Jim Crow South had lost the few gains they had made during Reconstruction. For many Americans, liberty was a promise not fully realized. As the film points out, liberty must be continually developed and safeguarded. It can never be taken for granted.”

The museum cost close to $100 million, which came from corporate sponsors and wealthy donors, but also regular citizens. “People all over the country contributed to the museum’s construction – just as Americans had raised the money for the construction of the pedestal almost 130 years ago,” Garcia said.

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