To say that the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center may be the most important museum in the United States would not be an understatement. Opened in 2004 and situated on the banks of the Ohio River in Cincinnati, it stands as a testament to the horrors of our past, the slowly progressive steps forward we are making in our present, and the endless possibilities for our future. This is more than a museum; it is a living, breathing essence.
At first glance, a mid-afternoon’s riverside view of the Freedom Center shows little more than a block-long, rather nondescript building surrounded by taller ones in a crowded downtown. But a closer look reveals an architectural marvel; the building is organized into three pavilions representing exhibits that demonstrate courage, cooperation, and perseverance. The north-south orientation of the paths between them and the undulating walls, curving pathways, and earthy materials used both inside and out were designed to remind us of the slaves’ treacherous flight to freedom in the North. A large section of the Berlin Wall near the entrance, quotes espousing freedom etched into the sidewalk, and an eternal flame burning on a terrace above complement the building’s deliberate design.
My niece and I visited the Freedom Center in early August, not long after it and other local museums were opening up on a limited basis during the pandemic. I was appreciative and impressed with the measures taken to keep staff and visitors safe; I was required to buy timed tickets online, there was a very small group of people scheduled for the time I had chosen, and everyone was required to wear a mask to enter and maintain physical distancing. Hands-on exhibits had been disabled, some of the big exhibits – including films and interactive ones - were temporarily closed, and the video stations that were working had temporary foot pedals to operate them.
Even with the restrictions and closures, a visit to this monumental museum is well worth it. There is so much here to explore; to see everything, one really needs to visit more than once. Colorful exhibits and detailed timelines teach the visitor about slavery in all its forms and critical moments in its history, about our contributions to the enslavement of others today, and steps that can be taken to reduce and eliminate it.
We began our visit on the third floor and worked our way down through beautiful and sometimes provocative exhibits that tell the story of the history of slavery in the Americas through today’s “invisible” slavery and the fight for freedom of all who are oppressed. The Freedom Center is proud to house the world’s first permanent exhibit highlighting modern slavery and human trafficking; displays address sex trafficking, forced labor, domestic servitude, forced child labor, and forced marriage. Temporarily closed on this floor is The Rosa Parks Experience, a virtual reality experience.
On the second floor, Escape! is an interactive exhibit for the whole family that introduces us to some of the personal stories of the Underground Railroad using storytelling and short films, hands-on exhibits, and timelines. Also on this floor - and arguably the focal point of the museum - is an authentic slave pen that was donated to the museum by a Kentucky farmer and moved to Cincinnati from Mason County, Kentucky during design and construction. Visitors can enter the pen, look out the windows, sit on its benches, and see the names of the slaves kept there. As with all areas of the Freedom Center, several pieces of unique art adorn the walls of this floor. Temporarily closed is the film, Brothers of the Borderland and the Harriet Tubman Theater.
The first floor’s primary exhibit, a learning lab dedicated to understanding implicit bias is, unfortunately, also temporarily closed. The Freedom Center has an amazing selection of online educational resources for all ages that are free, though, including a series of implicit assessment tests for a wide variety of topics. The list of tests can be accessed here:
As of August 2020, the following ticket pricing is in effect:
Seniors (60+) $13
Children (ages 3-12) $10.50
Children (under 3) Free
Details about membership levels and benefits (highly recommended!) can be found on the Center’s website. freedomcenter.org
There is a city parking garage under the Freedom Center that charges by the hour.
During the pandemic, hours have been reduced and timed tickets are required, so please check out the museum’s website for complete information. Also, mandated restrictions for public spaces – mask and social distance requirements – are in place and some of the exhibits are temporarily closed. Complete details can be found on the Center’s website, freedomcenter.org.
More about the architecture can be found here: http://www.archnewsnow.com/features/Feature213.htm
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Diane E. Baumer is a proofreader/editor and writer, with an MA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Midwest in Yellow Springs, OH. Her work has appeared in The Albatross (Romania), This is Shibun (Japan), Streetlight Magazine, The Manifest-Station, Haiku International, Open Minds Quarterly (Canada), and several others. When she is not writing (and sometimes even when she is), Diane can be found playing with her beautiful tortie, Silk.