NEW YORK - The 4.3 million annual visitors to the Statue of Liberty - that most recognizable symbol of American freedom - will be greeted by a modern multimedia museum in future, New York officials said Thursday.
The celebrated statue, designed by sculptor Auguste Bartholdi and built by Gustave Eiffel - donated by France on the 1876 centenary of US independence and inaugurated on Liberty Island in 1886 - has not had a museum worthy of the name since 2001.
Stringent security regulations put in place after the September 11 attacks had reduced the capacity of the exhibit space inside the monument, so that only 20 per cent of visitors to Liberty Island could enter, said the National Park Service, which manages the site.
The private foundation that raises funds for Liberty Island and nearby Ellis Island - and which has already renovated the immigration museum on Ellis Island - broke ground on the new museum Thursday. Enclosed in floor-to-ceiling picture windows, the building will cost an estimated US$70 million (S$96 million).
When it opens in 2019, the museum will offer a stunning view of Manhattan as well as a "multisensory experience" and a chance to "reflect on the very notion of liberty," according to its creators.
While the current museum is situated in the pedestal of the statue, the new Statue of Liberty Museum will be located on the opposite point of the small island. Its grass-covered roof will include a large terrace offering sweeping views of New York Harbor.
At a time when Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has been sharply critical of uncontrolled immigration, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio - himself descended from Italian immigrants - said his hope was that "this museum will be one of the bridges that helps us finally come to peace with who we are."
Officials in New York, which welcomes some 60 million visitors a year, also hope the new museum will boost tourism to Liberty and Ellis islands, which can be reached on the same ferry boat from the southern tip of Manhattan.
Several of New York's and America's most prominent philanthropists will help finance the museum, including the designer Diane von Furstenberg, an early backer of the project; Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon; and Michael Bloomberg, the businessman and former New York mayor.