The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center opened in Cincinnati, Ohio on August 23, 2004. Located on the banks of the Ohio River, the museum is about to celebrate its one-year anniversary. Covering 158,000 square feet, the National Underground Railroad Museum cost $110 million to complete. It offers 35,000 square feet of exhibit space, a 325-seat theater, the North Star Café, and an 8,000 square foot welcome hall.
The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center is an impressive sight to walk up to. Visitors are greeted with a large imposing glass wall. The expanse of glass faces North and South. The museum is divided into three main pavilions. The pavilions were built to represent courage, cooperation, and perseverance; they are connected by glass hallways. The museum is listed as a “Nationally Significant Building” in Cincinnati. This recognition was given by the Architectural Foundation of Cincinnati and the Cincinnatuss Association. It does not take a degree in architecture to appreciate this impressive building or its many amenities.
The National Underground railroad Freedom Center states it purpose as to “recount and reconnect the powerful American story of freedom from slavery to contemporary issues of freedom today.” Slavery existed for over 300 years in the United States. Blacks, white, former slaves, and Native Americans all participated in the struggle to provide a path to freedom known as the Underground Railroad. The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center tells this story through nine different exhibits. Each exhibit tells a portion of the past, while incorporating some of the most modern means employed by museums today. The museum adeptly tells the story of the involvement of the Underground Railroads participation in the fight to eliminate human slavery through research, educational programs, exhibits, live performances, interactive media, and simulation media.
The first exhibit you will encounter in the Freedom Center is the Suite for Freedom. This is the 325-seat movie theater located in the museum. The purpose of the Opening Experience is to familiarize visitors with the concepts of freedom, unfreedom, slavery and the Underground Railroad. Visitors find themselves in posh stadium style seating coming face to face with slavery and the human struggle to find freedom. The film introduces freedom fighters and specific details of slavery as it began and while it existed.
The next exhibit in the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center is the Slave Pen. It is located in the welcome hall of the museum. It is an authentic structure that resembles a crude log cabin, but in fact was a holding pen for slaves while they were waiting to be sold. The Slave Pen was relocated from Mason County Kentucky, only 50 miles from the museum. It is a startling visual step into history and many visitors are left silent or in tears after the experience.
The third exhibit, Escape! Freedom Seekers and the Underground Railroad focuses on the years in-between 1830 and 1865. This is a fact filled exhibit whose main focus is to tell the truths and dispel myth. The educational goals of local schools were a great influence on the design of this children friendly exhibit. Story telling, role-playing, and hands-on interactions are all appropriate for school aged children. It is an ideal part of the museum for teachers to let their students roam about on their own and learn.
Boeing Flight to Freedom Theatre is the fourth exhibit in the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. It offers visitors a chance to view “Brother of Borderland.” The movie screen is brought to life by imagery surrounding the screen and the viewers. Visitors find themselves set in a forest created by high-tech visual imagery and set design. It is reminiscent of a cyclorama, artists blur the line between movie screen and movie theater.
From Slavery to Freedom is the next exhibit. This exhibit portrays the period from which the slaves arrived in the new world until the Colonial period of the civil War. The Underground Railroad is a large part of this exhibit, as well as the people who began and continued it. Visitors enter this exhibit by passing by statues of slaves chained and shackled while a sleeping man guards them.
The sixth exhibit at The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center is The Everyday Freedom Heroes. This exhibit tells the stories of the courageous people who have fought for freedom from slavery. Visitors use interactive kiosks to learn these stories. This exhibit represents past as well as present heroes, including people such as Frederick Douglas, Mother Jones, Harriet Tubman, and Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth. This exhibits the museums adept ability at bringing both current technology together with history. It is a great exhibit for computer hungry school children; there are more than enough kiosks to entertain even the largest class.
The Struggle Continues deals with the period of time following the American Civil War. The struggle was not over merely because the war had ended. In fact, many freed slaves faced a whole new set of problems, like how to vote and trying to own land. Freed slaves were not readily accepted into society, even in the Northern states. The American Civil Rights Movement begins here. The exhibit explains the relationship between the Underground Railroad and the American Civil Rights Movement.
The Concluding Experience is one of the final exhibits in the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. Visitors are encourages to put a personal perspective on their experience at the museum. The exhibit uses interactive videos, open discussions, and a dialogue forum to help visitors learn how they can become conductors of freedom in their own lives. This exhibit is a mind opening transition into the last exhibit in the museum.
The final stop in the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center is an exhibit of the visitors themselves, named The Dialogue Room. In this exhibit visitors participate in dialogue with two trained co-facilitators. They encourage listening, questions, and in general reflection in a controlled environment. Not all visitors choose to share into this experience. It is a great place to listen to the ideas of others and what they learned from the organized travel through freedom, unfreedom, slavery, and freedom again in the museum’s exhibits.