History Prof Helps Redefine an American Icon

Back in the early 1980s, the Statue of Liberty, one of the country’s most prominent icons, was in urgent need of repair. In 1982, Lee Iacocca, chair of the Chrysler Corporation, backed a proposal to combine the restoration of the Statue of Liberty with the development of Ellis Island, where million of immigrants had once disembarked after sailing past the iconic statue, into a historical site. Just two years later, Alan Kraut, a professor of American history at AU and expert on the history of immigration, was asked to join a team of prominent historians who would offer advice and feedback for these two monumental projects.

Prof. Alan Kraut and his wife Deborah stand next to the Statue of Liberty’s torch as it is lowered for repairs on July 4, 1984. Exactly two years later, the repaired torch was unveiled atop a fully renovated statue.

Thus was born the History Advisory Committee of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island Foundation. Since 2003, Prof. Kraut, a member of the committee since its inception, has served as its chair. The History Advisory Committee (HAC) is appointed by the Statue of Liberty Ellis Island Foundation, which raised the funds for the renovations and museums on Liberty and Ellis Islands. Composed of fourteen scholars from across the country, the HAC offers the museum designers and the National Park Service crucial feedback on the historical content of the exhibitry and how best to present complex historical information to the general public. “It gives me great pleasure to bring the history of the country to a broader public through exhibits in museums,” Kraut said of his work, “and of course through work on the Statue of Liberty, which has come in many ways to replace Uncle Sam as the symbol of America.”

At the moment, Prof. Kraut is closely involved with the creation of new museum exhibits on the Statue of Liberty site. So many tourists now visit the site that many are unable to gain admittance into the statue. In response to this situation, Prof. Kraut has worked together with ABC News Documentary Division and Walt Disney Imagineering Division to develop a new introductory film to the Statue of Liberty Museum. “The purpose of this film is to give people a sense of the statue, its significance, and to introduce them to the tremendous visuals that they are going to engage with,” Kraut said. “We hope to give all visitors to the museum a sense of the majesty of the statue and a flavor of the excitement, even if they cannot get inside.”

The new museum and film are scheduled to open on May 15. The goal is to encourage visitors to this iconic monument to reflect on the evolving meanings of liberty in America. “We want people to really think about what liberty means and how it has developed in America,” Kraut said.

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