By: Isabel Vazquez
Impressions are meant to do precisely what the word implies, that is, to impress, to fascinate, and excite in a manner that would be entirely unforgettable. From the moment I approached the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, OH, it certainly was impressive. The trip took place on February 7 and was arranged through my immersive Digital Literature Review class at Ball State University by Dr. Adam Beach, in order for the students to better understand the implications of slavery throughout history. At the entrance of the museum there was a piece of the Berlin Wall right before I entered, with a sign declaring its historical importance. The piece of the wall was covered with graffiti in brilliant colors placed there by many who were eager to express their opinions on the west side of the wall, no doubt. The fact that the piece stood there, right before entering the museum, was, to my mind, indicative of the historical implications that the rest of the museum would ask me to consider.
I began on the third floor, as recommended by guest services. The moment I entered the From Slavery to Freedom exhibit, there was a definite change in the mood. On my immediate right, there was a prominent collection of statues in the corner, which consisted of slave men with sorrowful expressions on their visages (see image to the right). They were all sitting, chained, and each displayed a different emotion that, truthfully, was quite shocking and heart-wrenching to gaze at. The detail on them was amazing, so much so that you felt you were intruding into something personal. Some of these figures depicted in the statues were in the midst of crying, some staring quietly in the direction that you entered, and some gazing at the ground in utter defeat. The background surrounding them was of a simple house with a dirt floor, as if they had just been forced off the boat and locked in to prevent escape. There was even hardened sand with detailed shells embedded in it, and quiet sounds from the beach softly playing from hidden speakers and depicting the arrival of newly-brought slaves. The entire beginning of this particular exhibit was created with an immersive experience in mind. There was a prominence, a sort of hushed feeling that surrounded anyone who began the exhibit.
Without a doubt, this entry into the exhibit was meant to forcibly shock you into the history of slavery. From the moment I entered, I felt very much the intruder, and even uncomfortable. Though some people may argue that such an imposing entry is uncalled for, this is exactly what the exhibit was aiming to do. The history of slavery and its implications are not exactly a topic that can be sugarcoated to future generations. The raw introduction to this exhibit was done perfectly and appropriately in that it embodied the beginnings of slavery.
Past the statues there was an immediate onslaught of information covering the exhibit walls. There were fine facts and information about the transatlantic slave trade as well as recreations of newspaper articles on slavery issues. A multitude of other modes that conveyed information completely covered the path of the exhibit: posters,
drawings, objects, headlines, artwork, etc. A lot of interactive and computerized stations were placed throughout the exhibit, intended for use by both children and adults. There was also a notable area dedicated to showcasing the reasons behind slavery in connection to sugar and coffee production. As you moved throughout the exhibit, there was this unspoken idea that you were moving throughout time as well. Objects used by slave-owners were on display, such as shackles, whips and chains.
It is truly a powerful thing to see such objects in the context of the museum, in the heat of the moment. Often, you read about these experiences and events in history books, but never do you truly engage personally with any of it. The museum wonderfully displayed this dark theme to its visitors, in showing the power behind this tainted history in a way that made me self-aware of its implications today with an overload of information. The incredible amount of information was intended, in a sense, to overwhelm the guest in order to hopefully make a connection, an impression. And the layout of the exhibit was easy to follow, the fluidity of it modern. Yet, the lighting for the entire exhibit of From Slavery to Freedom was almost antiquated at times, throwing shadows and different connotations, depending on which part of the exhibit you were in. The entrance was noticeably brighter, for example, while, as I delved further into the exhibit, the light changed depending on the particular part of history that was being represented.
The reason for the drastic change in lighting was a means for presenting the history through vision. The brightness of a room can deeply affect the emotions associated with the lighting, and this subtle change from start to finish in the exhibit allows for the mind to unconsciously view certain parts of it in a particular way. For example, the statues at the beginning were not brightly lit; rather, they had shadows and multiple lights illuminating them to create a dreamlike state. The informative portion of the exhibit directly after the statues was even darker in terms of light, creating a personal, sort of heavy-lidded smaller space that seemed to entrap me with its implications of slavery. This form of presenting the material is important in order to gently guide visitors through the rather naturally morbid topic.
Specifically, there was this one curious room that was noticeably dark, with enough light to just barely see. The room was surrounded by stone-material inscribed with the names of past slave forts. In the mist of this ebony room was a stunning pillar that emitted light from it. The surface of the pillar, however, was covered in brilliant, tiny rocks of sea colors (see image to right). Shades of blue, green and yellow were wonderfully fixated on its glass surface, making for a stunning monument to the essence of slavery while “Amazing Grace” was playing in the background. However, some guests might disagree with my perception of it. Some of my fellow classmates, upon discussing the museum later on, mentioned how they viewed the room as personally offensive and rather eerie. This same pillar that moved me to recognize the horrid history of slavery disturbed others because of its presence.
This reaction shows precisely the power behind the visual design in general, especially within the framework of slavery. The lighting, different modes of presenting slavery, and the fluidity of the From Slavery to Freedom exhibit ultimately contributed to the essential importance of the history of slavery and to the visitors’ recognition of its modern existence. The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center did an incredible visual job in presenting slavery; not only do I applaud this museum, but I look forward to returning.